Open Journal of Philosophy
2012. Vol.2, No.2, 92-99
Published Online May 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
“Secularization” or Plurality of Meaning Structures? A. Schutz’s
Concept of a Finite Province of Meaning and the Question of
Religious Rationality
Marek Chojnacki
Ul. Szkolna, Izabelin, Poland
Received March 2nd, 2012; revised April 4th, 2012; accepted April 15th, 2012
Referring to basic Weberian notions of rationalization and secularization, I try to find a more accurate
sense of the term “secularization”, intending to describe adequately the position of religion in modernity.
The result of this query is—or at least should be—a new, original conceptualization of religion as one of
finite provinces of meaning within one paramount reality of the life-world, as defined by Alfred Schutz. I
proceed by exposing a well known, major oversimplification of the Weberian concept of secularization,
very well outlined in Peter Berger’s The sacred canopy, in order to point to the genuine, much more dif-
ferentiated position of Max Weber in this matter (especially from the period of Foundations of social
economic and Economy and society), and, consequently, to return to the roots of Berger’s thought: phe-
nomenological sociology of Alfred Schutz, an attempt to assure the philosophical foundations of Weber’s
sociological theory. At a closer glimpse, transformation of religion in the modern process of rationaliza-
tion does not consist—according to Weber—in eliminating religion and thus depriving society of the reli-
gious source of meaning, but in parallel emancipation of many different domains of rationality, including
religion itself. Using Schutz’s analysis of the social world as a complex structure of many different final
provinces of meaning, I describe religion as such a province and show what does the process of rationali-
zation of this province consist and what it should consist in: a complex, ongoing exchange of cognitive
relevances and contents, combined with growing autonomy of many different sub-worlds. Schutz’s theory
of symbol, rooted in Edmund Husserl’s description of constitution of complex objects in mono- and
polythetic acts of consciousness, moves the analysis to the epistemological level, pointing to a chance of
intensifying our cognitive relation to reality through increasing interpenetration of various sub-universes
of meaning.
Keywords: Religion; Rationality; Modernity; Secularization; Phenomenological Sociology;
Finite Provinces of Meaning; Life-World; Emancipation; Epistemology
An Ambitious Question Profiting from
a Major Ambiguity
Irrespective of what we think of the claim of religions to
their truths and of their place in the modern society, they con-
tinue play an important role in shaping social institutions, pat-
terns of behavior and ways of thinking. But, contrary to the
situation a century ago, we seem to know less and less about
the social role and position of religion, in spite of common
theorems and descriptions pertaining to this domain of social
world, theorems and descriptions that we use to take for granted.
A paradigmatic example of such a theorem, only seemingly
evident, provides the notion of secularization, introduced to
reflection on society mostly by Max Weber’s social theory and
reinterpreted subsequently in the second half of the twentieth
century in the analyses of such authors as Peter L. Berger (The
sacred canopy, 1967), Thomas Luckmann (The invisible relig-
ion, 1963), David Martin (The religious and the secular, 1969),
Bryan Wilson (Religion in sociological perspective, 1982), and
most recently Jose Casanova (Public religions in the modern
world, 1994). It is interesting that all these analyses prevails the
oversimplified understanding of secularization as a process of
elimination of religion as the main (or only) source of meaning
in society and of its replacement by other social domains, such
as science, state and the like. With such a notion of seculariza-
tion, it seems to be really difficult to know what we are talking
about. Jose Casanova, considered to be one of the most eminent
and pertinent secularization theorist, describes the recent dis-
cussion on this subject as “the often fruitless secularization
debate” (Casanova, 2006: p. 8). Even he, however, although
(mostly under influence of Talcott Parsons’ functional theory)
recognizing “differentiation of the secular spheres” as one of
the aspects of secularization, defines this phenomenon in the
first place as “decline of religious beliefs and practices in mod-
ern societies” (Casanova, 2006: p. 7).
The purpose of the present analysis is, however, not to study
the history of the notion of secularization or to take stance to-
wards every—be it even the most important—view formulated
in this regard. Taking reinterpretation of the Weberian notion of
secularization as its point of departure, it wants first of all to
profit from the ambiguous theoretical situation outlined above
to reformulate the question about religion and its claims and to
ask about its cognitive and social potential, other than being the
unique source of meaning in society. An expected result of such
an approach may be not only a new understanding of religion,
but also of the whole process of socialization, of social rational-
ity and of its cognitive potentialities. Such an ambitious goal—
fascinating beyond any doubt—forecloses obtaining precise and
accomplished results in such a short and introductory query,
which wants only to initiate and outline a new approach. Hence
the unaccomplished character of its conclusions, intending ra-
ther to inspire further research than to offer well defined an-
Secularization as Elimination of Religion?
Questioning Weber about Berger’s
Sacred Canopy
The postweberian tradition of the sociology of religion yields
unexplored possibilities of interpreting the concept of seculari-
zation, to the extent that it is possible to question if its use for a
so long time in the reflection on religion and society wasn’t a
kind of misunderstanding. An eminent example of such a rein-
terpretation offers us Catherine Colliot-Thélène in her essay on
disenchantment and rationalization in Weber (Colliot-Thelene,
1995). Referring to the late Weberian sociology of religion,
developed after his famous The protestant ethic and the spirit
of capitalism, she makes the point that it is unjustified to place
his analyses in the frame of interpretation of secularization
theories. The frame of interpretation of secularization theories,
claiming that the essential difference between the modern and
the premodern world consists in emancipation from the decisive
influence of religion on the constitution of society, fail to do
justice to Weberian analyses because they assume that the es-
sential role of religion in society is to be the sole source of
meaning (Colliot-Thelene, 1995: p. 73). Colliot-Thélène quotes
the example of The sacred canopy of Peter Berger (Berger,
1967), inspired by Weber, where the term “secularization” de-
notes the situation of religion thrown into the market of com-
mercial competition, deprived of its original power to bestow
the common meaning upon society and thus leaving it in a pri-
mordial state of chaos and anomy (Colliot-Thelene, 1995: p.
Berger’s formulation of the loss of meaning resulting from
the secular turnover is indeed powerful:
“The world as defined by the religious institution (...) was the
world (...). To step outside the world as religiously defined was
to step into a chaotic darkness, into anomy, possibly into mad-
ness.” (Berger, 1967: p. 135).
Paraphrasing Durkheim, we could say that in the face of such
massive meaninglessness, the only way out for the common
man is suicide. Paradoxically, it may be said—even without a
detailed analysis—that contemporary theologies of seculariza-
tion, quoted by Berger as positions opposite to his own (Berger,
1967: 106f, 155f), such as D. Bonhoeffer’s vision of “re-
ligionless Christianity” or H. Cox’s Secular city, carried along
the same implicit effort to present religion as the exclusive
source of meaning in premodern society, rejected in the process
of emancipation that was initiated by Enlightenment.1 The
question raised by Colliot-Thélène is whether such a vision
corresponds to interpretations of religion contained in M. We-
ber’s sociohistorical analyses, inspiring, as it seems, Peter Ber-
Plurality of Meaning Structures. Weber’s
Broader Understanding of Secularization
If The protestant ethic dealt mainly with the relation between
changes within Christianity as a relatively independent domain
and the beginnings of capitalism, in Weber’s later studies on
religion we find a shift of interest towards a more general rela-
tion between the basic web of social life, which we would call
today the “life-world”, and the process of general rationaliza-
tion of the life-world, in the double sense of means-ends ration-
ality and of development of moral goals. This shift, characteris-
tic of all of Weber’s analyses since the project of Foundations
of social economics, is testified by his wife and biographer,
Marianne Weber, as focusing on the global process of ration-
alization, the same in many different domains of social life,
such as religion, economy, law, ethics, aesthetics and science,
which in this particular regard become its partial manifestations
(Teilerscheinungen) (Weber, 1975; Colliot-Thelene, 1995: p.
Thus, in The sociology of religion, Weber’s late synthesis on
the subject in question (Weber, 1963), relations between reli-
gious patterns and the emerging capitalist society aren’t de-
scribed as eliminating one Durkheimian quasitranscendental
principle of unity and meaning in favor of another (or lack of it),
but rather as a complex process of changes in those patterns,
increasingly accounting for needs and pursuit of meaning in the
changing society. So for example a Weberian priest differs
from a magician by degree of generalizing religious patterns,
moving from a direct satisfaction of everyday religious needs to
images and structures stabilizing and institutionalizing society.
But his role, in comparison to a prophet, representing the ethi-
cal type of religious rationalization, is still essentially oriented
toward everyday needs: priests, by their institutional constitu-
tion, are obliged to serve laymen. What results from the com-
promise between institutionalized instruction, satisfaction of
everyday religious needs and high ethical standards of prophets
is what Weber calls “pastoral care” (Weber, 1963: pp. 1-79).
Independent intellectual movements, processing metaphysical,
ethical and soteriological questions, are conceived here rather
as counterbalance for monopolizing these questions by priest-
hood, characteristic of all ages, than as a radical emancipation
from religion, seemingly characteristic of modernity (Weber,
1963: pp. 118-137). Even the confrontation of types of “salva-
tion religion” with requirements of modern economical struc-
tures turns out to be a positive evaluation of religion in the
frame of modernity, since one of these types, “inner-worldly
asceticism”, presenting the world “to the religious virtuoso as
his responsibility”, is the factor that puts economical life in
motion (Weber, 1963: pp. 138-222). Weber’s rather pessimistic
conclusion that “only Protestantism completely eliminated
magic and the supernatural quest for salvation, of which the
highest form was intellectualist, contemplative illumination”,
and that “it alone created the religious motivations for seeking
salvation primarily through immersion in one’s worldly voca-
tion (Beruf)” (Weber, 1963: pp. 269-270) results from the limi-
tations of his historical and cultural horizon, restricted, in spite
of the enlargening the research field, to that of The protestant
ethic, and has nothing to do with suggesting the decline of re-
ligion as such (Colliot-Thelene, 1995: p. 67). Briefly, as Col-
liot-Thélène puts it, the main interest of Weber’s analyses isn’t
the opposition between the inner-worldly and the hereafter
(diesseits/jenseits) orientation, suggesting the totalizing charac-
1See e.g. Bonhoeffer’s concept of man’s and world’s autonomy in his letter
to Eberhard Bethge form 16 July 1944, in: Bonhoeffer, 1971, pp. 359-361;
similarly Cox’s opposition between tribal religious society and secular city,
see Cox, 1990, pp. 9-11, 230.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 93
ter of religion and its elimination in the modern world, but the
distinction between (religious and other) orientations, rooted in
everyday life and those uprooted from it (Alltäglichkeit/
Außertäglichkeit). The life-world, the cardinal locus of econ-
omy, is his main point of reference, in respect to which all other
domains are evaluated (Colliot-Thelene, 1995: p. 75).
Rationalization Rooting in the Life-World.
New Chances for Religion
If the life-world, more than religion or anything else, is the
primary source of meaning, then what—if not eliminating re-
ligion as the only source of meaning—constitutes from the We-
berian perspective the specific position of religion in the frame
of modernity? Berger’s complaints about the disastrous charac-
ter of this position may be helpful in ans we ri n g th is question:
“As a result of secularization religious groups are also com-
pelled to compete with various non-religious rivals in the busi-
ness of defining the world, some of them highly organized (...),
others much more diffused institutionally. (...) The world-
building potency of religion is thus restricted to the construc-
tion of sub-worlds, of fragmented universes of meaning, the
plausibility structure of which may in some cases be no larger
than the nuclear family.” (Berger, 1967: pp. 134, 137).
Berger’s description of many different religious and non-re-
ligious instances, of many different sub-worlds competing in
defining meaning, seems to be quite accurate and may be taken
for an adequate image of religion’s situation in modernity. But
the purely negative estimation of this situation, suggested by
Berger, doesn’t seem to be defensible when confronted with his
own analysis on religion and alienation, effectuated in the for-
mer chapter of his book (Berger, 1967: pp. 81-101). Dangers of
religion as false consciousness, turning religious mystery into a
terrifying alien force and overlegitimizing political power, ap-
pear in this analysis to be coalesced with what Berger, after
Sartre, calls attitude of bad faith, or, in Meadian terms, a total
incorporation of the “I”, the subject of social action, by the
“me”, i.e., the social role the subject is playing. Such an atti-
tude entails a severance, in consciousness, of the dialectical
relationship between man (as a believing subject) and his prod-
uct (religion):
“The duplication of consciousness brought about by sociali-
zation and the concomitant internalization of the socio-cultural
dialectic is thus denied. A false unity of consciousness is pos-
ited instead, with the individual identifying himself totally with
the internalized roles and the socially assigned identity consti-
tuted by them. For example, any relevant expressions of self not
channeled in the role of faithful husband are denied. Put differ-
entially, the internal conversation between husband and (poten-
tial) adulterer is interrupted. The individual sees himself as
nothing but a husband in those areas of his life to which this
role pertains. He has become a husband tout court, the husband
of the institutional dramatis personae.” (Berger, 1967: p. 94).
Berger tries here a very original reinterpretation of the clas-
sical concept of false consciousness, based on the distinction
between subjects as original sources of social roles and struc-
tures and these structures and roles cut off from their subjective
source. It seems to be very important that when the subjective
source is taken into account, a plurality of many different roles
and meaning structures—even contradictory, as in the case of
the roles of husband and adulterer—emerge from the complex
web of human relations. A basic question implied by this
analysis is whether it is possible to assume such a plurality
without falling inescapably into the primordial chaos of mean-
inglessness, if one presupposes that there is only one source of
meaning in the social world. The assumption of religious ob-
jectivation as the only means of constituting sense in society
and the assumption of subjective distance toward objectivations
seem to exclude each other. The social actor is supposed to
perform constant leaps from one objectivization to another
through the empty space of meaninglessness, which, according
to previous assumptions, should destroy his world. Therefore,
Berger’s efforts to escape the danger of false consciousness
remind somehow of baron Munchhausen, trying to get out from
the bog by pulling his own hair.
It would be more consistent to assume, on the grounds of the
Weberian positions, that the process of rationalization has led in
modernity to the highly reflexive acceptance of many different
domains of meaning—among which religion has its own posi-
tion, but is scarcely a solitary one—thus escaping the danger of
“false unity of consciousness”. This status quo of plurality isn’t
as a matter of fact a revolution, but rather a development, since
other domains contributing to the human quest for meaning
always existed as constitutive of human consciousness. Their
autonomy may be seen positively as a part of a tendency to
make explicit this quest, the proper and original locus of which
is the life-world.
Such an interpretation of Berger’s diagnosis has, apart from
its consistency, another advantage in comparison to Berger’s
pessimism: it isn’t in principle at odds with the way religions
used to define themselves. To the self-definition of religion
usually belongs a claim that certain contents of beliefs are true,
independently of the role and function religion plays in society,
whereas the Durkheimian model of interpretation, assumed by
Berger, grasps it only as a purely formal means of enforcing
social unity, external to our perception of reality and appearing
as a purely human and social product. It is much easier to rec-
oncile religious claims to truth with a vision of their social
structure that considers religion as rooted in our common per-
ception of the world, where something like revelation, illumi-
nation or any other form of radical givenness of the supreme
being and meaning seems quite possible.
Alfred Schutz: The Notion of a Finite
Province of Meaning
When Peter Berger speaks of “sub-worlds”, or “fragmented
universes of meaning”, he seems to paraphrase consciously the
James-Schutz conception of the plurality of meaning structures.
For William James, the accent on the “various orders of reality”,
the “many worlds” or “sub-universes” of human experiences
expressed a belief that, as Alfred Schutz puts it, “reality means
simply relation to our emotional and active life; whatever ex-
cites and stimulates our interest is real” (James, 1890: pp. 283-
324; Wagner, 1970: p. 252). Such a standpoint highlights the
subjective grounding of our perception of reality, but at the
same time relativizes it and pushes it toward a mere subjectiv-
ism. Schutz, the founder of sociophenomenology, takes over
from James the concept of vari ous reality orders, but not in the
sense of separate independent “sub-universes”. As he puts it,
“We prefer to speak of finite provinces of meaning upon
which we bestow the accent of reality, instead of subuniverses
as does William James. By this change of terminology we em-
phasize that it is the meaning of our experiences, and not the
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
ontological structure of the objects, which constitutes reality.”
(Schutz, 1970: p. 1, p. 252; Schutz, 1962: p. 230).
Let us remark, to begin with, that Schutz means here prov-
inces of meaning, i.e., not the separate “worlds” projected by
many individuals on many occasions, but domains of some-
thing that can be universally grasped and what gives the unity
and content necessary to fill a proper act of cognition, as well
as to sustain social life. Berger’s expression “fragmented uni-
verses of meaning” tries to short-circuit this difference: even if
there is any “meaning” in quasi-universes, left after the big-
bang of modernity, it is fragile, unable to endow them with
unity and stability. In other words, the above-mentioned ex-
pression reflects Berger’s fundamental disbelief in the possibil-
ity of meaning in the world deprived of one religious order of
universal meaning, encompassing all domains of life, whereas
Schutz proposes a theory of many finite provinces of meaning
(including, as we will see, religion), contributing to a stable
web of social world. What may be astonishing is that Berger
feels obliged to use in this context the term meaning.
The key to Schutz’s concept of the finite province of mean-
ing is his basic project of sociophenomenology, conceived as
exploration of meaningful structures of the life-world, as phe-
nomenology of the natural attitude. For the world of daily life is
the intersubjective space where meaning, i.e., the universum of
goals and means, is constituted in the course of interactions,
where “we both, I and the Other, experience the ongoing proc-
ess of communication in a vivid present” (Schutz, 1962: p. 219).
In this space “the physical objects of nature are transformed
into sociocultural objects” (Schutz, 1970: p. 253), obtaining
their first and basic interpretation in terms of human action.
That’s why the world of everyday life is the paramount reality
in relation to all other sociocultural interpretations, developing
and concretizing the human quest for meaning: it endows them
not only with the raw material, but gives them their core which
must be further interpreted according to their specific character.
These specific interpretations—finite provinces of meaning
thus obtain what Schutz calls the accent of reality: their linkage
with the universe of meaning directly grasped in the full atten-
tion to life, through the suspension of doubt in whatever ap-
pears to be real and meaningful. The more specific are finite
provinces of meaning in determining their own field of interest,
in making meaning more clear and distinct from that grasped
within others, the more distant they are from attention to life,
moving on the scale of phenomenological reduction away from
the suspension of doubt towards the suspension of belief. “A
typology of the different finite provinces of meaning could start
from an analysis of those factors of the world of everyday life
from which the accent of reality has been withdrawn”; “what
then remains outside the brackets could be defined as the con-
stituent elements of the cognitive style of experiences belong-
ing to the province of meaning thus delimited” (Schutz, 1962: p.
The tension between the suspension of doubt and the suspen-
sion of belief, between the epoché of the natural attitude and
different epochés of finite provinces of meaning is thus the way
Schutz defines different domains contributing to the constitu-
tion of meaning. Specific epochés having their absolute model
beyond the natural attitude, in the phenomenological epoché
sensu stricto, where the belief is suspended about the world as
such, leaving only the pure content of intentional acts of con-
sciousness. Schutz tries to describe in detail such provinces of
meaning as phantasms, dreams and science, social science in
particular (Schutz, 1970: pp. 256-292; Schutz, 1962: pp. 234-
259). Although he doesn’t attempt to describe religion in the
same way, he mentions it along with art as an eminent example
of specificity of finite provinces of meaning. Moreover, he
mentions “the leap into the religious sphere” together with the
scientific “disinterested contemplative attitude”, thus confirm-
ing the principal position of the religious domain of meaning in
the world of human culture (Schutz, 1970: p. 255; Schutz, 1962:
p. 344).
Religion as a Finite Province of Meaning
For our purposes, we can try to develop, on the basis of
Schutz’s basic definitions, a brief description of religion as a
particular finite province of meaning, characterized by the sus-
pension of doubt in the world as it is grasped from the religious
point of view. The world, under influence of a specific religious
experience, is apprehended in relation to some supreme being
or principle, as creation, Maya, emanation of Godhead, scene of
action of gods or God, scene of revelation or in any other way.
Such a cognitive attitude entails development of particular be-
lief systems, or religious traditions, consisting of socially trans-
mitted symbols and attitudes pertaining to the world of every-
day life and attempting to influence it. This particular mutual
relation between the paramount reality and religious reality,
constituting a kind of feedback, seems to be the main charac-
teristic of religion from the functional point of view and brings
it close to such provinces of meaning as science or art. This
feedback relation, depending on the cultural context and degree
of rationalization of social life, may be simple and direct—
being then perceived as “the only source of meaning”, although
actually it is never the case—or indirect and counterbalanced
by other regions of meaning emancipated from its dominance.
But it remains always the essential constituent moment of re-
ligion. Influence of science or ideology on the everyday life can
be a secondary effect or an attempt of external control: religion
is always—at least in the consciousness of believers—a way of
According to Schutzian assumptions, there is always another
side of the peculiar suspension of doubt, characteristic of a
given finite province of meaning, namely the particular suspen-
sion of belief. In the case of religion, it seems to be the refusal
to accord relevance and status of reality to any element of the
life-world that appears to be at odds with the belief system
produced by the religious cognitive attitude within a given reli-
gious tradition. Paraphrasing the strict phenomenological lan-
guage of Husserl, we may say that the religious attitude “switches
off” the explanatory power of those meaning structures and
those objects aperceived and apresented in the natural attitude
that collide with the present status quo of the be lief system.
Alfred Schutz: A Net of Provinces of Meaning.
Passages between Them and Their Unity
Before we try to specify more closely the suspension of be-
lief, characteristic of the religious reality, and its consequences,
we should ask how Schutz defines relations between different
finite provinces of meaning. First of all, all members of the
social world live in one paramount reality of everyday life, and
that paramount reality enables switching their cognitive atti-
tudes from one province of meaning to another. Schutz states
that such leaps are accompanied by shocks, resulting from the
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 95
radical change of world perception. Their abrupt nature mani-
fests itself in many different manners:
“There are as many innumerable kinds of different shock
experiences as there are different finite provinces of meaning
upon which I may bestow the accent of reality. Some instances
are: the shock of falling asleep as the leap into the world of
dreams; the inner transformation we endure if the curtain in the
theater rises as the transition into the world of stageplay; the
radical change in our attitude if, before a painting, we permit
our visual field to be limited by what is within the frame as the
passage into the pictorial world; (...). But also the religious
experiences in all their varieties—for instance, Kierkegaard’s
experience of the “instant” as the leap into the religious sp he r e —
are examples of such a shock, as well as the decision of the
scientist to replace all passionate participation in the affairs of
“this world” by a disinterested contemplative attitude.” (Schutz,
1970: pp. 254-255; Schutz, 1962: p. 231).
In our attempt to describe the religious suspension of doubt
we have pointed out to the fact that it is possible to typify finite
provinces of meaning according to the degree of influence on
the world of everyday life, to their feedback relation with it.
Let’s see now what happens to the category of leap if we apply
this typification. If the finite province of meaning shows ex
definitione little interest in “what really happens and should hap-
pen” in the everyday world, as for instance (under certain con-
ditions) in the case of dream, fantasy, or even art, then a leap
from such a province to another is abrupt, but neutral. If, on the
contrary, provinces are engaged in redefining the life-world, it
may happen that passing from one to another we realize that
different provinces try to define it in a radically different man-
ner. It comes then to an open conflict between the provinces of
If we take into account this potential conflictory aspect of the
religious province of meaning, the religious natural suspension
of belief appears to be a guard of its borders, a kind of a power
shield protecting religious rationality from alien intruders. But,
on the other hand, as Schutz puts it,
“we are always living and acting simultaneously in several of
these provinces, and to select one can merely mean that we are
making it so to speak our ‘home base’, ‘our system of refer-
ence’, (...) in relation to which all others receive merely the
accent of derived reality—namely, they become horizontal,
ancillary, subordinate in relation to what is the prevailing
theme.” (Schutz, 1970: p. 11).
There is no absolute starting point from which we start inter-
preting reality; Schutz seems to stand here firmly on the non-
foundationalist positions. The theme-field relation, i.e., the
basis of choice of a given province of meaning changes con-
stantly, and asking about the beginnings of choosing one rather
than another, we are inescapably faced with the fallacy of peti-
tio principii (Schutz, 1970: p. 11). Moreover, we live simul-
taneously in many different provinces of meaning, what brings
in question the very notion of leaps from one to another, at least
if we understand leaps as a mere sequence of different manners
of cognition. This leads to astonishing conclusions:
“The corollary to the fact that we live simultaneously in
various provinces of reality or meaning is the fact that we put
into play various levels of personality—and this indicates a
hidden reference to the schizophrenic-ego hypothesis.” (Schutz,
1970: p. 11).
In order to understand what Schutz has in mind and to escape
the danger of treating his deliberations as an invitation to mad-
ness2, we have to change the kind of metaphors from visual to
auditory ones, what was one of Schutz’s most important modi-
fications of Husserl’s phenomenology. In the domain of music:
“the listener’s mind may pursue one [motive] or the other,
take one as the main theme and the other as the subordinate one,
or vice versa: one determines the other, and nevertheless it
remains predominant in the intricate web of the whole structure.
It is this ‘counterpointal structure’ of our personality and
therewith of our stream of consciousness which is the corollary
of what has been called in the other connections the schizo-
phrenic hypothesis of the ego—namely the fact that in order to
make something thematic and another thing horizontal we have
to assume an artificial split of the unity of our personality.”
(Schutz, 1970: p. 12).
Now, how it is possible to assume the existence of the natu-
ral suspension of belief in its “hard” version of a sharp boarder,
proper, e.g., to the religious province of meaning, together with
the counterpointal structure of consciousness, demanding a
continuous flux of our relevance systems? It seems necessary to
introduce a new category of a critical suspension of belief,
bracketing in a provisional way the external structure of a given
province of meaning and thus making the necessary exchange
of relevances possible. Similarly as R. M. Zaner speaks about
Schutzian phenomenology of the life-world as a kind of epoché
of second degree, suspending the suspension of doubt proper to
each domain of meaning thematic (Zaner, 1970: p. 12), so and
we could imagine a suspension of the suspension of belief,
making thematic the exchange of relevances and the process of
inner modification of a given province of meaning. Before,
however, we turn to the analysis of what such a critical suspen-
sion may be, some explanatory remarks are necessary about
how the question of the position of religion among other prov-
inces of meaning, especially in the context of modernity, is
related to the Schutzian conception of the counterpointal struc-
ture of the social construction of reality.
Religion within the Net of Provinces of
Meaning. Schutz’s Theory of Symbol
If we take into account the feedback relation of religion, out-
lined above, then we must assume that this province of meaning
was somehow always in conflict with other provinces having—
at least partially—the same character. The rationalization proc-
ess in the Weberian sense, consisting in clarification and com-
plexification of the means-ends structure, led to the increasing
autonomy of provinces of meaning other than religion and con-
sequently to the increase of their feedback function in relation
to the life-world. This, in turn, led to inevitable conflicts be-
tween religion and such social domains possessing their own
major provinces of meaning as science or politics, so visibly
marking the history of the European civilization since Renais-
sance. With reference to religion this process may be called
secularization, but hardly in the sense of eliminating—fortu-
nately or unfortunately—religion from the set of factors consti-
tuting meaning in society. Religion—or, in extreme cases, its
substitutes—was and still is a valid autonomous province of
meaning, even in the most “secularized” parts of the world.
But the process in question goes on, and even particular “in-
2Schutz, of course, explicitly denies identity of the “schizophrenic ego”with
the ego of patological schizophreny, cf. Schutz, 1970: p. 13.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
ner horizons” of experience3, inherent to particular social roles
and contexts, gain their independence, constituting their own
versions of relevance systems, of priorities, means and goals,
and becoming finite provinces of meaning on their own. We
normally do not notice how different are relevance systems
attached to our different social roles—of parents, of subjects of
the world of science, economy, politics, of church members—
because, living simultaneously in all of them, we manage to
establish a provisional harmony between these relevance sys-
tems, however vulnerable such a harmony might be. But the
process of rationalization brings them to the fore as independ-
ent provinces of meaning, exposing inescapable conflicts be-
tween them as problems given and elaborated in the collective
consciousness. The situation of a pregnant middle class college
student on the way to her career, who is a practicing Catholic
and is tempted to commit abortion, of a Christian favelas habi-
tant, torn between the alternatives to “hate her/his neighbor” or
to fall prey to an oppressive economic system, or of a religious
terrorist, having the choice to kill innocent people or to surren-
der her/his nation to the unjust political force may serve us as
some extreme ad hoc examples. It should be added that those
situations, and many other similar situations, aren’t new or
specific to modernity: they actually always occurred. What
makes the difference—easily labeled as “secularization”—is
that now, instead of conceding privy compromises, usually
eliminating claims of one or another relevance system, we have
to consciously deal with tensions between systems of relevance,
and that they challenge us to modify them and to integrate them
in some higher, more reasonable meaning structure.
How to deal with these tensions? It is more reasonable to ask
how they are in fact dealt with than to invent theoretical pro-
jects intending to “solve the problem”. In quest for a suitable
description let’s turn once again to Schutz’s sociophenomenol-
ogy, this time specifically to his theory of symbol, which can
give us a clearer idea of the critical suspension of belief. Schutz
tries to develop a theory of creative leaps between meaning
provinces, corresponding to the somehow dramatic situation of
living simultaneously in many of them. This theory is based on
reinterpretation of Husserl’s description of the complex struc-
ture of cognitive intentionality in terms of description of the
structure of choice. A complex act of cognition (and choice), in
which the object is fully appresented—a polythetic act for
Husserl—is composed of many single constituent monothetic
acts, having a single shaft of attention or ray (Strahl) of aware-
ness directed toward an object. Important here is the difference
between what Husserl calls continuous synthesis—an accom-
plishment of a polythetic act binding together single acts with
contents fitting together unproblematically, like in the case of
particular appearances of a thing in space—and discontinuous
synthesis, binding acts the relation of which to one another is
more problematic. In the latter case the unity thus formed is
called a unity of a higher order. But the synthetic act, being a
many-rayed reference to an object, is not satisfied in being a
plural consciousness. It tends to transform itself into a single
consciousness, becoming anew a monothetic act, with a
“one-rayed object” (Schutz, 1970: pp. 150-151).
The very notion of discontinuity inscribed in the dialectical
logic of choice reminds us of the radical discontinuity of inter-
subjectively conditioned consciousness performing constant
leaps, or even more, simultaneously oscillating between many
different provinces of meaning. The task of such a conscious-
ness, synthesizing apparently heterogeneous elements, is all but
easy and simple. It seems to be torn apart between two essential
directions: accounting for the source of our knowledge and
choice, for the very givenness of meaning, associated with the
polythetic structure of our choices, and, on the other hand, the
clarity and distinctness of choice and knowledge, acquired by a
monothetic act (Schutz, 1970: pp. 80-82). We may add that the
increase of realizing this dialectics, combining two kinds of
dynamics of consciousness—the tendency to increase the clar-
ity and distinctness on the one hand and the accountability of
sources on the other—is the essence of what Weber called the
process of rationalization and what we could somehow para-
doxically call emancipation of the life-world.
Filling Gaps after Passage. Intensifying
the Exchange of Meaning
We come then to the central question, crucial in the Schut-
zian theory of symbol, namely, how do we accomplish mono-
thetic acts concerning meaning in the situation of discontinuity
of appresentation, caused by the fact that “we live simultane-
ously on different levels of reality (provinces of meaning)”
(Schutz, 1970: p. 104). When I leap from one to another, some
topics important in the previous province disappear from my
eyes, not even as a set of impressions and images, but as a
meaningful structure, because topics of our previous experi-
ences now lack particular systems of relevance, necessary to fill
them with meaning. Schutz gives here a particularly clear ex-
ample of awakening: I remember dreaming something, but the
real content of the dream is absent, since I am no longer able to
believe that my vital interest is to “find my way out of the
magic spell which barred me from running after the person in
whose hands (I was certain, while dreaming) was kept the se-
cret of my existence” (Schutz, 1970: pp. 105-106). What can I
do to reconstitute the lost meaning of my dream, somehow
necessary for the unity of a higher order embracing all prov-
inces of meaning, toward which I strive? The meaning of the
dream is no longer there; but when I think of it, I discover an
empty space left in my consciousness after withdrawing the
system of relevance of the dream world; now, I must “work
hard”4 to modify my present relevance system in order to create
a basis for the new content, recaptured from another meaning
province. Now, as Schutz puts it:
“The vacancy is filled in with a new topic, a substitute which
belongs to both worlds: to that of the dream, because the va-
cancy created by dropping the dream-topic still refers to the
reality of the dream world left behind by my awakening; and to
the world of daily life, because all interpretational and motiva-
tional relevances attached to this vacancy belong to this para-
mount reality (...).” (Schutz, 1970: pp. 106-107).
This new topic, emerging out of vacuum, is nothing but a
symbol in the Schutzian sense:
A symbol in this sense is thus an enclave in the actual level
of reality resulting from the annihilation of a topically relevant
theme of experiences originating on another level of reality.”
(Schutz, 1970: p. 107).
This seems to be the most adequate presentation of an answer
to our question of what a critical suspension of belief in the
religious sphere of meaning may be in the face of the expand-
4See J. Turner’s idea of “working hard” in order to intersubjectively negoti-
ate a meaning: Turner, 1988: p. 202.
3About Husserl’s notio n o f “inner horizon” see Schutz, 1975, p. 9. 93f.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 97
ing emancipation of the life-world. It may seem at first glance
that Schutz’s example of passing from dream to reality dis-
qualifies the application of this type of reflection to our pur-
poses. Religion, if we take into account its self-definition, isn’t
a kind of imaginary world hovering over reality, but, on the
contrary, a domain that claims the right to define reality itself.
It is a province of meaning with a strong feedback relation to
everyday reality. When something is meant within the religious
rationality, it is meant, to a certain extent, within the everyday
world, and vice versa: claims to meaning existing within the
life-world affect and compete with religious claims.
I submit, though, that this particular feature of religion only
strengthens the explanatory power of the Schutzian theory of
symbol. Phenomenology is the art of discovering, by some kind
of a reflexively performed epoché, these elements of the origi-
nally given that are concealed from our sight because they are
too close to us. Therefore, it starts by using examples in which
the distance is as great as possible and moves toward the others,
where the visibility is much worse. “‘What is Hecuba to the
actor?’ asks Hamlet. What is Hamlet to us?” asks Schutz. What
is the striving to emancipation and career of a pregnant college
student to the ideal Catholic, whose commitment to the abso-
lute value of human life simply eliminates the relevance of this
topic? What is the absolute value of human life to a fully
“secularized” career-maker, whose relevance system cancels
the very possibility of considering such a subject? What is the
commandment to “love thy neighbor” to the revolting poor, as
well as to the rich contemplating his/her economic success, and
what is the cry of injustice to the religious believer, who used to
neutralize such secondary earthly problems with the perspective
of heavenly happiness? The domain of such questions is as vast
as it is unexplored. It is certainly not a coincidence that Schutz,
well aware of the specific character of religion, poses in this
context a remarkable question: “How is it possible that reli-
gious experience reveals as a kind of knowledge, the truth of
which cannot be grasped by the scheme of interpretational
relevances prevailing in the world of daily life?” (Schutz, 1970:
pp. 107-108). But, in the face of the modern emancipation of
major and minor provinces of meaning, it is also unavoidable to
ask how it is possible that these emancipated domains con-
stantly reveal meaning structures that are still unaccounted for
by religious belief systems. The process of symbolization is and
should be mutual.
What Already Happened and What Is to Be
Done. Some Appraisals and Perspectives
It would be a misunderstanding to suggest that such a mutual
process of symbolization remains only an unaccomplished wish.
As a matter of fact, it goes on, in a more or less visible manner.
As a visible example we may mention the so-called adjective
theologies, developing mainly on the grounds of the Judeo-
Christian tradition (liberation theologies, feminist theologies,
etc.), trying to assimilate other relevance systems, and, on the
other hand, the increasing notice of human rights in various
domains, stimulated by the influence of many religious belief
systems. It doesn’t cancel, however, the imperative of reflexive
intensification of the process in question—for religion, it seems
to be a conditio sine qua non of appealing to contemporary
plausibility structures, as well as of its mystagogical participa-
tion in the human quest for truth. It would be also a misunder-
standing to think that symbolization in the sense outlined above
leads to a watering down of the identity of religion, since, as
suspension of the suspension of belief, it seems to remove
shields protecting this identity. In fact, it is rather an internal
regroupment of forces, necessary to catch up with the situation
on the battle field. It presupposes a constant effort to redefine
borders proper to a given province of meaning, in accord with
the particular kind of experience inherent to this province. We
may mention here a clear example taken from the modern con-
flict of religion and science: if theologians and inquisition in-
vestigators accusing Galileo and Copernicus of heresy had
worked more intensively on symbolization of their belief sys-
tem in reference to changing cosmology, they would have come
to conclusions similar to that of Joseph Ratzinger, depicting our
marginal position in the cosmos as a perfect reflection of God’s
logic of maximizing the minimum, corresponding to His own
triune nature and His plans in the salvation history (Ratzinger,
1979: pp. 101-104).
This is, of course, not a historical judgment, but rather an
operation, speaking the language of Schutz, of projecting modo
futuri exacti, i.e., imagining the results of our present actions in
terms of effects of the past ones, in this case reprojected onto
the scene of the past . We may imagine that way many things in
the future: professionally active women raising their children as
a standard of social and religious behavior, struggle for social
justice and economic success of individuals as a major interest
of religious relevance systems, even religious terrorists solving
their problems by means of non-violence strategy. Such exer-
cises of the imagination might be helpful and stimulating, but
they cannot replace the real work of getting closer to each other,
modo praesenti, different relevance structures, inherent to mul-
tiple provinces of meaning. Only this effort can help us to avoid
real social schizophrenia by strengthening the unity of the
counterpointal structure of social consciousness, of the world
we all share.
Conclusion. Religion in the World of
Plurality and Autonomy
We may now return to our question about the real meaning
of the concept of secularization in the postweberian tradition.
Secularization—on the grounds of our considerations—seems
to be neither a threat to religious rationality and social order,
nor the liberation of Reason (or even of the real faith) from the
religious prejudice, but rather a challenge, which religion shares
with others provinces of meaning in the face of what we have
called the emancipation of the life-world. From the point of
view of religious rationality, there is one more reason confirm-
ing the thoroughly positive character of this challenge. If relig-
ion is a universal human vocation—a claim that contemporary
great religious systems would scarcely deny—and if this voca-
tion is compatible with the human quest for meaning, its roots
are in the world of everyday life, which is larger and richer than
any socially well-defined religious system. And this means,
paradoxically, that religion has to reach constantly to the re-
sources of experience, located, at least apparently, beyond its
own borders in order to better account for what it is to account
for. This affinity of modern social processes and religious goals
isn’t accidental: the emancipation of the life-world is, after all,
in spite of its flaws and crimes, an intensification of the human
quest for meaning.
Alfred Schutz, whose sociophenomenology has served in this
paper as a basis of interpretation of the postweberian concept of
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 99
secularization, probably discussed this concept explicitly only
once, in his review of Eric Voegelin’s The new science of poli-
tics and Order and history (Voegelin, 1952; Voegelin, 1956;
Schutz, 1996). His reluctance to accept Voeglin’s point of view
on secularization as pagan redivinization of politics and the
world as such seems to confirm my application of the Schutzian
theory of relevance to the question of religion. Schutz asks why
every falling-away of Christian faith understood as a general
frame of social order should necessarily mean lethal danger of
false divinization of human history. Voegel’s argument is right
only when one assumes that there is no other access to real
meaning than the concept of transcendence delivered by Chris-
tian faith: Schutz’s response to this assumption is the explicit
question whether there cannot be non-Christian experiences of
transcendence in the sense of non-Euclidean geometries
(Schutz, 1996: p. 230). If the Christian conception of eschaton
is accepted as axiomatic, says Schutz, every immanentization of
meaning in history may appear to be a Gnostic heresy and an
incarnation of evil; but his main point seems to be that Christi-
anity—or even religion as such—is not the only axiomatic sys-
tem. After all, there are other, non-Euclidean geometries; there
are many systems trying to grasp meaning. They all meet where
geometry has its origins in the everyday practice of measure-
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