What's the Matter with Liberalism?

What's the Matter with Liberalism?

by Ronald Beiner

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This title is part of UC Press's Voices Revived program, which commemorates University of California Press’s mission to seek out and cultivate the brightest minds and give them voice, reach, and impact. Drawing on a backlist dating to 1893, Voices Revived makes high-quality, peer-reviewed scholarship accessible once again using print-on-demand technology. This title was originally published in 1992.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520328693
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 09/01/2020
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 210
Sales rank: 1,270,614
Product dimensions: 6.14(w) x 9.21(h) x 0.50(d)

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What's the Matter with Liberalism?

By Ronald Beiner

University of California Press

Copyright © 1992 Ronald Beiner
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-07793-8

Chapter One

Prologue: The Theorist as Storyteller

Political philosophers in the twentieth century have on the whole been a curiously self- abnegating lot. The majority of them have deliberately abstained from the large and deep speculations on the good society and the good for humanity that characterized the great tradition of Western thought. Political philosophers, at least those of the analytical variety, have confined themselves to the modest enterprise of conceptual analysis-theoretical clarification of the concepts that figure prominently in political life. Philosophers within the Continenetal tradition have shown less abstinence, but where they did dare to pronounce on large, substantive questions of human nature and the essence of politics, they tended to reiterate well-established theories already on offer within the tradition. Of course, there are exceptions. But it is striking that even Jürgen Habermas, who is committed to offering a comprehensive theory of the rational society, can say in his book Legitimation Crisis that we can expect no guidance from metaphysically grounded theories of human nature. And with the influence of French poststructuralism gaining ground, and even more radical renunciation of traditional philosophy is demanded, and even a minimal appeal to shared rationality is rendered suspect.

Certainly within Anglo-American modes of thought one strains to think of any serious effort to formulate an original statement of the good for humanity. There are many who will say that now this has all changed. In recent years, with publication of John Rawl's A Theory of Justice and works of a similar king, vitality has once again returned to political life. However, it seems to me that however ambitious the work of Rawls may appear, it is in fact no less self-restricting and self-effacing than other work in the analytical tradition. One of the reasons for this is the insistence on offering a guide to practical affairs-cutting theoretical speculation down to the need for practical decisions on the immediate questions of daily life. This is a conception of theory that Rawls shares with most other contemporary political philosophers. Indeed, the conception of political philosophy most prevalent in the Anglo-American world today is that of recommending policies: the function of the philosopher is to supply clever arguments for favoring one set of policies rather than another. Cutting theory off more sharply from immediate practice would restore to theory its freedom of speculation-something always indispensable to original works of theory.

In many cases philosophers have failed to produce important reflections on moral and political life not for want of ability but because they believed it did not befit the philosopher to pronounce on what is important and essential in human life. In other words, they deliberately forsook such reflections on account of theoretical scruples. They were persuaded that such "modesty" was appropriate to the philosophical vocation.

Let us compare what may be considered appropriate to a great work of literature. The great novel or great drama often succeeds in disclosing what it means to be a human being, what is worthy or unworthy in human life, what is ennobling and what is degrading in human affairs; and the best literary characterizations may present us with exemplary human types. It is not surprising, indeed it is only natural, if novelists, poets, and dramatists aspire to some major insight into human nature and the defining features of a significant human life. Why should the philosopher now aspire to less? Here the reply will come that the literary artist can allow himself or herself this indulgence because his or her preoccupation is with the world of imagination, not with the establishment of truth, whereas the philosopher's enterprise is one of cognition and requires that one set one's standards by the satisfaction of demonstrable claims to propositional validity. The literary imagination, it will be said, can allow itself a rich array of possibilities in conceiving human experience; philosophy, however, must discipline itself to the strict requirements of truth, and accordingly must be wary of the merest hint of extravagance. Therefore literary authors can indulge themselves in a way that philosophical authors cannot.

But is this the case? Distinguished works of literature have the force that they do because they seek to give us some unified and compelling vision of ourselves; that is, they attempt to uncover some important truth about ourselves. The work of literature, when it fulfills its highest potentialities, enters truth-claims, and the imaginative effort is at the same time a cognitive undertaking. The real achievement at which it aims is not the mere conjuring of possibilities, but the securing of a knowledge of human existence. Again, we pose our question: Why should philosophy aspire to less? Literature in this traditional and noble sense has not been abandoned; why, then, should theorists and political philosophers voluntarily abandon substantive philosophical anthropology (the philosophy of humanity, or a systematic theory of human nature)?

Let me give an example of the kind of theory that has been purposely neglected. For Aristotle it was possible to discern a set of ethical capacities having a reality on a par with our physical capacities. These are both natural and habitual. We are born with a range of native endowments, physical and ethical, but these can (and must) be developed through exercise and deployment in practice. On the basis of Aristotle's ethics, one could extrapolate an analogy between physical fitness and "ethical fitness." No one would think to assert that we are all born with identical physical endowments, or that all such endowments are identically desirable. Some are better endowed than others. There are people who have a capacity for swift running that I can never hope to emulate. But this is not simply a matter of native endowment. Muscles that are not exercised will atrophy. Capacities can be trained to a certain extent, and the point of physical fitness is to develop one's inborn capacities to their full employment. Aristotle's writings on ethics suggest a parallel with ethical life. Ethical fitness is a combination of native endowment and trained practice. Just as a muscle must be exercised in order to reach its full potential, so an ethical capacity (such as justice or prudence or capacity for friendship) must be put into practice in order to realize one's human potential as an ethical being. And just as some people will always have the ability (latent or developed) physically to outrun me, so there are some people who naturally outrun others in their capacity for moral insight. Ethical fitness means exercising through habituation our natural ethical endowments, just as physical fitness consists in developing our muscles to their natural potential. Ethical life, for Aristotle, is a matter of developing our innate endowments to a state of maximal fitness. We have little difficulty in distinguishing when someone has attained a state of full physical well-being; ethical theory looks for an analogous standard of ethical well-being, and the latter standard should be no less accessible to the normal intelligence than is the former.

Physical fitness is a normative concept, no less normative than ethical fitness in our sense. In fact it would be odd to omit normative terms from the description of someone's physical condition; such terms arise when we say a person is overweight, out of shape, or sluggish, for example. Why shouldn't the description of a person's ethical condition be likewise normative? Just as we can say that it is undesirable when someone is obese, unfit, and sufficiently out of shape that he or she cannot ascend a flight of stairs without panting, so we can say with no less legitimacy that it is undesirable when individuals become so ethically unfit that they are incapable of sustaining friendships, or when they corrupt their own moral ends in order to satisfy base impulses such as stinginess or greed. The way the person of practical wisdom exercises his or her capacities for ethical insight in situations of praxis is, on this understanding, fundamentally no different from the way the person of physical strength flexes his or her muscles in the appropriate context. (Needless to say, our exemplar here is not Arnold Schwarzenegger!) So, in one case as in the other, it is entirely unexceptional that we can derive practical norms from the description of ordinary capacities and the situations in which they are commonly exercised.

Now this is precisely the kind of theory that contemporary philosophy regards as unfeasible. Why should we now abstain from such reflections? To be sure, Aristotle assumed that the students of his ethics would already be equipped by upbringing and the ethos of their community to be receptive to his characterization of ethical well-being. Contemporary philosophy makes no such assumptions. But the primary reason why such an ethical theory meets with skepticism is that it presupposes a substantive theory of human nature-an account of the virtues that conduce to an excellent human life.

As I argued earlier, literary works, even today, do not flinch from such normative claims. Let me give a specific example of how important works of literature depend upon normative truth: Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities is a masterpiece of storytelling about the diversity of urban living- spaces and the dissolution of this diversity. The implication is that, collectively, we are paying a fatal price for the homogenization of the human habitat. The work owes its force to the validity of this descriptive truth-claim. Either our situation is like that or it isn't, and the literary creation loses an essential dimension if it is a misdescription. I need not go so far as to claim that this kind of message exhausts the novel; I need merely establish that it accounts for an important part of the literary power of the work. The novel asserts that human beings risk losing themselves if they so reconstruct the conditions of their existence that Tokyo becomes indistinguishable from Los Angeles, that one city becomes absolutely the same as and continuous with another city, except for the name of the airport. This is not very different from the sort of claim offered by the traditional political philosopher or philosophical anthropologist. In fact, in certain respects Calvino's truth telling bears affinity with some aspects of Aristotle's theory: if certain conditions are not present or are removed, human ethical life atrophies; in particular, virtues that flourish in the polis perish in the megalopolis.

In support of my argument that works of literature assert normative and cognitive claims to validity, I will cite the testimony of Iris Murdoch, who is both novelist and philosopher:

I think that though they are so different, philosophy and literature are both truth-seeking and truth-revealing activities. They are cognitive activities, explanations. Literature, like other arts, involves exploration, classification, discrimination, organized vision. Of course good literature does not look like "analysis" because what the imagination produces is sensuous, fused, reified, mysterious, ambiguous, particular. Art is cognition in another mode. Think how much thought, how much truth, a Shakespeare play contains, or a great novel. It is illuminating in the case of any reflective discipline to see what kind of critical vocabulary is directed against it. Literature may be criticized in a purely formal way. But more often it is criticized for being in some sense untruthful. Words such as "sentimental," "pretentious," "self-indulgent," "trivial" and so on, impute some kind of falsehood, some failure of justice, some distortion or inadequacy of understanding or expression. The word "fantasy" in a bad sense covers many of these typical literary faults. It may be useful to contrast "fantasy" as bad with "imagination" as good.... In condemning art for being "fantastic" one is condemning it for being untrue.

Murdoch's point is that the imagination is itself a cognitive faculty, that the efforts of the imagination are a form of cognitive exertion, and that one immerses oneself in a literary work not simply to derive enjoyment or to be entertained, but often in order to come to a better understanding. Many philosophers today, particularly in France (poststructuralists and practitioners of deconstruction), would wish to relax the distinction between philosophy and literature in order to reduce the cognitive claims of philosophy. My aim is exactly the opposite: to liken philosophy to literary activity in order to elevate the cognitive claims of literature.

Let there be no mistake about the kind of normative claims that I am ascribing to philosophy and literature. The literary work, in its evocation of exemplary types, does not offer direct practical injunctions of the form, "Live your life thus." Rather, it recommends, "Reflect on life in the light of these truths about our common situation." The case is the same with works of theory such as Aristotle's Ethics. It too does not contain specific practical injunctions of the form, "Live your life thus." It, too, suggests rather, "Reflect on life in the light of these truths about our common situation."

To put this point another way, so its implication will be clear: I am urging both more modesty and greater ambition on the part of theorists-more modesty with respect to specific practical recommendations, greater ambition in general reflection upon the nature of humankind and the ends of society. I do not believe it is the place of the theorist to tell us, for instance, whether we should be opting for a unilateralist or multilateralist nuclear disarmament policy; that is a matter not for theoretical decision but for common deliberation among citizens. On the other hand, however, I believe it is within the competence of theory to inform us of the general implications of a state of affairs where the means of defense of a society's way of life is so remote from the experiences and imaginative capacities of its members that such public deliberation is rendered nearly meaningless. The anxiety of many theorists to supply answers that would be of immediate practical relevance impairs their ability to address questions of the more far-reaching kind.

What I am appealing for is a return to the sort of full-bodied philosophical anthropology that can specify the basic moral and political needs of human beings, and a repudiation of the formalistic preoccupation with rights, interests, and rational preferences. The latter have been the staple of liberal political philosophy.


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