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Abstract

This paper explores the relationship of historical narratives to contemporary political theory by considering the merits of the rival theories of pluralism and democracy presented by John Rawls and Charles Taylor. While Rawls and Taylor appear to agree on the importance of an overlapping consensus, by situating the idea within their respective historical narratives of modern democracy and pluralism, this paper demonstrates how the two theorists differ in their understanding of the problem of pluralism and how it relates to modern democracy, resulting in competing conceptions of an overlapping consensus. Rawls’s historical account showcases the ability of once hostile religious doctrines to overcome their aggressive tendencies through the experience of well-functioning, mutually beneficial political arrangements over time. Therefore, Rawls’s idea of overlapping consensus seeks permanent arrangements to resolve the tension. In contrast, Taylor characterizes pluralism and modern democracy as in an enduring dilemma, produced by profound shifts in self-understandings, one that cannot be forever solved and thus requires repeated creative solutions. Therefore, Taylor’s conception of overlapping consensus is flexible, emphasizing dialogue and mutual understanding between citizens. Drawing on interpretivist approaches to social science, this paper argues for the possibility of evaluating these two narratives, arguing that Taylor offers a comparatively more compelling narrative on the grounds that it can better account for the conditions of modern democratic life and the sociological dynamics in contemporary Western religious belief, resulting in a more desirable means of addressing this form of democratic anxiety.

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