Civic Culture and Modern Philosophy
Philosophy and Civil Society

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Theme: How and why modernist liberal political philosophy got mixed up with foundationalist epistemology 
ESSAY 2: The Anti-Rhetorical Rhetoric of Pure Theory
 

 

 

 


The modernist liberal conception of civic culture was defined above all by a systematic denial and concealment of its own rhetorical character.













 

 
















 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Both Lockean and Kantian styles of modernist liberal political theory sought to support liberal democratic norms by offering arguments drawn from foundationalist epistemology.






 

 

 





















 


Do the norms proper to civic life become any more intelligible or attractive as a result of being derived from the state of nature or from the principles of pure practical reason?




 

 
























 

 

 


Rhetoric came to be viewed by the proto-liberals of the seventeenth century as the tool of particular interests and therefore as linguistic fuel for the fires of civil conflict.


























 

 

 






 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 




The cultural project of the Enlightenment constituted a powerful historical form of belief that served the interests of freedom and equality for almost three hundred years.

 
 
Theoretical discourse as a rhetorical strategy 

          Inquiry about civic culture -- this present inquiry in particular -- is badly misunderstood if it is taken to be a purely theoretical inquiry into the nature of things. A clear understanding of the rhetorical character of this kind of inquiry is important for two reasons.

          First, the demise of Enlightenment conceptions of reason and knowledge calls into question the very possibility of a purely theoretical discourse, i.e., a discourse asserting audience-independent truths about an audience-independent subject matter merely for the sake of asserting those truths. We must subject inquiry about civic culture to rhetorical analysis because, in the emerging post-Enlightenment period of American and European culture, every inquiry must be so subject. This requires of us all a new sort of rigor, a new intellectual discipline of which we are still scarcely capable. 

          Second, a clear understanding of the rhetorical character of this inquiry is important because the modernist liberal conception of civic culture that it seeks to replace was defined above all by a systematic denial and concealment of its own rhetorical character. The description of our present situation as a crisis of civic culture -- indeed, the very notion of civic culture itself as it emerges here -- gains plausibility only to the extent that we begin to perceive the anti-rhetorical stance of modernist liberalism as itself an unacknowledged rhetorical strategy.

          A civic culture is a body of narratives, representations, and discourses that serve to render intelligible and support the effective internalization of the norms proper to liberal democratic citizenship. The norms themselves clearly belong to the sphere of culture -- i.e., they belong to the sphere of personal and shared collective conviction. When a civic culture is effective, large numbers of nominal citizens actually develop the capacity to adopt the standpoint of citizenship, the capacity effectively to treat themselves and others as free and equal individuals. 

          On the other hand, a civic culture is a countervailing culture. It is a culture that requires citizens at least occasionally and temporarily to step out of the perspectives in terms of which they normally view the world and see things from a different point of view. The narratives, representations, and discourses that make up the civic culture of a particular historical period provide a specific interpretation of that shift of viewpoint. In offering this interpretation of the standpoint of citizenship, a civic culture also provides a particular set of resources for motivating citizens effectively to assume that standpoint. This clearly involves a continuous process of persuasion. 

          Modernist liberal political theories are constitutive components of a body of discourses that for more than three hundred years have defined modernist civic culture. As such, modernist liberal political theories offered an interpretation of the standpoint of citizenship, an interpretation that also served as a justification and motivation for the adoption of civic norms. Modernist liberalism, in short, was a central component of the process of persuasion by which modernist civic culture succeeded in producing and cultivating civic attitudes and values. 

          My goal here is to make clear the central importance of the unusual rhetorical means used by modernist liberalism in its contribution to this process of persuasion. Modernist liberal political theories, as discursive components of modernist civic culture, offered an interpretation of the normative standpoint of liberal democratic citizenship. But, to a very large degree, these doctrines succeeded in achieving their intended rhetorical or persuasive effect by claiming a status that denied their rhetorical character. Modernist liberal political theories, in other words, presented themselves as sets of purely theoretical propositions about the nature of human political association, the nature of human reason, and the nature of the world itself. 

          I hope that it is evident by now that, when I characterize modernist liberalism in this way, I am not making some sort of new theoretical claim about the history of modern culture. To say that modernist liberalism achieved its rhetorical effect by a certain dissemblance, by a masking of its own rhetorical character and function, is to offer a genealogical diagnosis of our present cultural crisis. I am saying that it is good for us, as citizens of late 20th-century North Atlantic democracies, to learn to redescribe modernist liberalism in this way and to make the appropriate inferences. It is good for us because it will help us, as citizens, to maneuver with less confusion and panic through the landscape of the post-Enlightenment cultural world that is now emerging. With this goal in view, then, let me briefly elaborate the redescription of modernist liberalism that I am recommending.

Two styles of foundationalist liberal political theory

          If a civic culture is bound to be a countervailing culture, one whose norms and perspectives to some degree stand in a relationship of opposition to and tension with the values and world views that otherwise shape the lives of citizens, the question is, how did the discourses of modernist liberalism support that countervailing culture?  How did they achieve their intended rhetorical effect?  

          Let us keep in view the general characteristics of the doctrines that we today identify as defining modernist liberalism. For present purposes, it is fair to classify modernist liberal political theories into two general types. Both varieties of modernist liberalism sought to support liberal democratic norms by offering arguments that, in a broad sense, could be described as foundationalist -- i.e., modernist liberals offered theoretical discourses designed to show that liberal democratic norms are founded upon or derived from universal principles and objective truths. The two varieties of modernist liberal political theory differed from one another only with respect to the particular foundationalist style they adopted for carrying out this derivation. 

         To honor the most notable practitioners of each style, let us call one of these styles Lockean and the other Kantian. Lockean liberal theorists generally sought to deduce the standpoint proper to citizenship -- i.e., the standpoint of the free and equal individual -- from what they conceived to be the universal condition in which all human beings find themselves prior to political association: the so-called state of nature or natural condition. The utilitarian variation on this style usually took a naturalistic/psychological turn and derived norms proper to civic life from the natural laws purportedly governing human sensation and the universal human experience of pleasure and pain. 

          On the other hand, Kantian liberal theorists found reference to historical narratives, supposed states of nature or psychological laws to be inadequate as sources of a sufficiently strong moral obligation to motivate development of civic attitudes and submission to the standards of civic justice. Kantian liberal theorists generally favored a more tightly logical, a priori style and sought to deduce the norms proper to liberal democratic citizenship from some conception of universal human reason -- in some cases following Kant himself in discovering those norms in the principles of pure practical reason and later, in other cases, following Hegel in discovering those norms in the manifestations of reason’s irresistibly progressive self-realization in history.

          Whichever of these styles (or mix of these styles) modernist liberal theorists favored at one time or another, the important point for present purposes is that they all saw as their task the production of purely theoretical discourses designed to justify or legitimize the norms proper to citizenship by grounding those norms upon supposedly universal metaphysical or epistemological principles. A theoretical discourse, as I have characterized it, is one that intends more or less self-consciously to set forth, merely for the sake of doing so, a set of audience-independent truths about an audience-independent subject matter. In other words, to a theoretical discourse the categories of rhetorical analysis apply only externally, if at all. A theoretical discourse aims not at persuasion, but rather simply at stating the truth, at affirming of what is that it is. 

          Surely it is apparent that there is something strange here. Civic norms exist only by being effectively internalized and faithfully adhered to in practice. Such internalization and adherence must be motivated, particularly when we are speaking of norms that to some extent must always stand in a relationship of tension with values rooted in totalizing ethnic, class, or religious world views. 

          But do the norms proper to civic life become any more intelligible or attractive as a result of being derived from the state of nature or from the principles of pure practical reason by a theoretical discourse?  Furthermore, if we already find civic norms attractive and are thereby committed to the form of political association that embodies them, do we really care whether those norms can be justified theoretically?  

          If it would turn out that there is some logical mistake in the theoretical justification, would this lessen our commitment to liberal democratic values?  It would seem at first glance that the universalist theoretical discourses of modernist liberal political theory would offer rather meager rhetorical resources to a persuasive process aimed at motivating a particular audience at a particular time to develop and exercise the capacities proper to citizenship.

          I maintain that it is time for us to take as our starting point the admission that the characteristically modernist project of justifying liberal democratic values theoretically is a problem. If we begin with this admission, our first question then becomes: By what mechanisms did modernist liberal political theory actually come to play such a central role in modernist civic culture?  

          One answer to this question is the one I have already stated as my thesis here -- namely, that the foundationalist, anti-rhetorical posture assumed by modernist liberal political theory is indeed itself a rhetorical strategy, a strategy that carried considerable persuasive force at the time of its adoption. Our problem is that it has by now ceased to carry this persuasive force. To the extent that contemporary civic culture remains dependent on this modernist rhetorical strategy, to that extent the countervailing effectiveness of contemporary civic culture is undermined and weakened. 

          Let me now briefly elaborate this diagnostic redescription of modernist liberalism.

The inner political logic of the rhetoric of pure theory      

          A civic culture, as I noted above, is necessarily a countervailing culture. Liberal democracy assumes that citizens are adherents of particularistic conceptions of the good life.  It assumes that citizens are members of ethnic, class, and religious communities with competing interests and conflicting world views. 

          The rhetorical task of any civic culture is to win the allegiance of all citizens to a common set of civic values that requires citizens to modify in a certain way and to interpret differently their commitments to the totalizing world views of their primary communities. This rhetorical task proper to any civic culture offers us a basis for understanding the rhetorical mechanisms by which the theoretical discourses of modernist liberalism managed to have persuasive impact. 

          Modernist liberal doctrines arose in the seventeenth century during a period of intense ethnic, class, and religious warfare. In the social and economic upheavals of the period, warring parties and factions ruthlessly struggled for power, pursuing victory for their particular causes at the expense of the common good. 

          Language was a weapon and a captive of this civil war. Rhetoric -- understood broadly as the cultural tradition, the linguistic self-consciousness, the skills and methodologies brought into play in shaping the convictions of particular audiences -- was a powerful weapon in the struggle of community against community, world view against world view. Rhetoric thereby came to be viewed by the proto-liberals of the seventeenth century as the tool of particular warring interests and therefore as linguistic fuel for the fires of civil conflict. 

          Of course, it was very easy to interpret the largely bourgeois and Protestant proto-liberals themselves as just one more party, as one more set of economic and political interests, competing for power. If the liberal democratic cause was to prevail and an effectively countervailing civic culture to be established, it was necessary for liberals to neutralize this perception of their own agenda as but one more particularistic, interest-driven program. 

         One standard rhetorical strategy that may always be used to neutralize this sort of perception is to present one’s agenda as supported and even dictated by universal principles and timeless truth. This is the strategy that the proto-liberals of the seventeenth century adopted. Blatantly persuasive speech makes appeals to the passions and interests, to the particularistic commitments and allegiances, of its audience. 

          If the liberal democratic program was to succeed -- i.e., be persuasive -- and establish a common ground on which adherents of opposing interests and world views could meet, it had to distinguish its own rhetoric from the rhetoric of party and faction. It had to strip its own discourse of all appeals to passions and interests. It had to adopt the voice and persona of pure reason. It had to assume a self-consciously anti-rhetorical stance. By the mid-seventeenth century, the model for this kind of discourse -- found in the writings of Galileo and Descartes -- was already established and widely known. The task of the liberal party was to fit this model to the requirements of political speech. 

          Specifically, this meant adapting the foundationalist style of argumentation to discourses advocating the establishment of certain kinds of political institutions. The foundationalist style of argumentation required, for maximum persuasive force, the identification of one or more absolutely self-evident premises as the basis for demonstrating the timeless, "objective" truth of what were in fact a set of political prescriptions. 

          This method could only with some awkwardness be applied to political subjects, but the first full-scale and self-conscious attempt at this application -- Hobbes’s Leviathan in 1651 -- met at least with some conceptual success. Hobbes, though certainly no liberal democrat himself, at least showed that political philosophy, by adopting the rhetoric of foundationalist epistemology, could credibly take on the appearance of being a purely theoretical discourse. Hobbes showed, in short, that the political rhetoric of pure theory could work.

          Needless to say, I am not claiming that seventeenth-century proto-liberals adapted the rhetoric of foundationalism to political philosophy with the full awareness that it was but one rhetoric among others -- a rhetoric that worked above all because it claimed to abstain from and constantly criticized the manipulative and ornamental tricks for which rhetoric was then notorious. 

          No, early liberal theorists and later adherents of both Lockean and Kantian varieties of liberal political philosophy no doubt actually believed that the rhetoric of pure theory was not a rhetorical strategy at all. They really believed that, with the right cognitive method, they could in fact adopt a standpoint toward political affairs and toward the world in general from which they could issue discourses whose truth claims were not conditional upon the assent of some particular historically-situated audience, discourses that set forth for all times the audience-independent truth itself. 

          Seventeenth-century proto-liberals were supported in this belief by the entire array of assumptions that we now identify as basic to the cultural project of the Enlightenment. Enlightenment conceptions of reason and knowledge were built upon the rejection of what was taken in the seventeenth century to be the cognitive inadequacy of explicitly rhetorical modes of speech. Partisans of pure reason, seventeenth century proto-liberals laid the groundwork for modernist civic culture by affirming the possibility of a mode of speech free of the cognitive and moral defects of self-consciously rhetorical speech, a purely theoretical mode of speech issued from a standpoint that could in principle be adopted by any human being at any time in any place.

The self-overcoming of the Enlightenment

          Were these partisans of pure reason simply self-deluded?  Were they simply incorrect, mistakenly using the words "reason" and "knowledge" to refer to things nonexistent or at least other than what those words properly refer to?  Hardly. To characterize Enlightenment conceptions of reason and knowledge in this way as mistaken or incorrect would be to reaffirm the very assumptions that we must seek to put aside today. 

          In the context of seventeenth and eighteenth-century social and economic struggles, the invention of a standpoint of pure reason provided the basis for a rhetorical strategy that, from our point of view today, worked -- i.e., worked to influence events and shape lives in ways that we approve of. While we might be inclined today to look upon this modernist rhetorical strategy as appropriate only to a more innocent and less self-critical age or perhaps even as a bit mendacious, we must not forget that any such judgment is a reflection of our own rhetorical situation, our own cultural and political exigencies. The cultural project of the Enlightenment, after all, constituted a powerful historical form of belief that served the interests of freedom and equality for almost three hundred years.

          The only basis for criticism of Enlightenment conceptions of reason and knowledge is that today they at best serve these interests badly. We citizens of North Atlantic liberal democracies have been shaped by Enlightenment culture and by modernist liberalism. It is with eyes that were given vision by Enlightenment culture that we look back upon modernist liberalism and find its anti-rhetorical stance naive and mendacious. Such a judgment does not constitute a rejection of the Enlightenment, but rather signifies arrival of what, using Nietzsche’s vocabulary, we can describe as the Enlightenment’s moment of self-overcoming. 

          It is time now to find new rhetorical resources to support and motivate the cultivation of civic freedom and equality, resources not so subject to easy refutation and even ridicule as are those that were generated by the modernist rhetoric of pure theory.           

          In the effort to discover such resources, however, we are not able simply to turn our backs on modernist liberal political theory and move on. This project -- the project of inventing a viable postmodern, post-Enlightenment civic culture -- must confront at every step the continuing influence and lingering effects of the earlier successes of the modernist rhetoric of pure theory. 

          The ideas of modernist liberalism were centrally important components of modernist civic culture. As we have seen, a particular historical form of civic culture has two functions: it provides cultural resources that serve (1) to render intelligible to citizens the values and standpoint proper to liberal democratic citizenship, and (2) to provide citizens with motivation to develop the moral capacities required for citizenship. Modernist liberalism carried out both of these functions effectively, but in a way that, from the standpoint of our post-Cold War experience of citizenship, is bound to create continuing problems both for the task of rendering the standpoint of citizenship intelligible and for the task of motivating the development of civic capacities and values.

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