Secular Rationalism

Kant epitomized the Enlightenment's elevation of Reason as a force of human betterment and a method of transforming culture (Cassirer). Ever since the Enlightenment, Reason has provided a principle for critique of traditional culture, social institutions, and customary practices. Over time, critique of the traditional has gradually given way to the articulation of new principles of legitimacy. Since the eighteenth century, the appeal to Reason has given rise to a secular moral culture as the primary ground of legitimation for the major institutional frameworks of modern society—for the institutional complexes that Weber characterized as having "rationallegal" legitimation (Weber, 1968; Lidz, 1979a, 1979b). Parsons epitomized this long and complex process of cultural change by focusing on Kant's writings and their long-term impact on the creation of new intellectual disciplines and moral-political ideologies.

In Parsons's view, Kant's critique of Newtonian physics became a model for assessing the intellectual legitimacy of new disciplines. It led to the opening of the domain of methodically developed and evaluated knowledge to new forms. Thus, from Kant's time to ours, there has been continuous growth in specialized scientific and scholarly disciplines. Kant's critiques of the human faculties of judgment and practical reason proved no less important, as they legitimated the voice of moral Reason and, as Parsons emphasized, undercut all claims to ultimate moral certainty. Ever since, Western civilization has been engulfed in ever-renewed moral and ideological controversies on almost every topic of social import. As Parsons expected, orientations toward death, given their irreducible significance to humanity, have been caught up in a range of the controversies.

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