Civic Culture and Modern Philosophy
Philosophy and Civil Society
All varieties of modernist liberal political theory shared as their rhetorical common ground the epistemological doctrine of the autonomy of reason.
A liberal democratic civic culture must provide cultural resources capable of rendering intelligible to citizens the normative standpoint of citizenship. This is not an easy task. Liberal democracy requires citizens to cultivate for purposes of political association a special kind of identity -- what I have called a civic identity, one that necessarily stands in a certain relationship of tension with the sort of identity that governs most life and action -- what I have called a communitarian identity.
Specifically modernist civic culture accomplished this task by means of the resources offered by modernist liberal political theory. Social contract theories, for example, (mis)represented the normative standpoint of citizenship -- the standpoint of autonomous individuality -- as historically and anthropologically prior to other cultural standpoints. In the social contexts of 17th- and 18th-century Europe and America, such misrepresentations were effective for the purposes of generating arguments in support of liberal democratic institutions and of providing a credible interpretation of civic ideals.
In the radically different social and historical context of late 20th-century Europe and America, however, these misrepresentations of the normative standpoint of citizenship have become problematic indeed. Rather than rendering intelligible to citizens the standpoint proper to citizenship, representations of free individuality as the historically and anthropologically prior or "natural" identity of human beings serve only to confuse citizens regarding the nature and status of citizenship.
This is true also of other forms of modernist liberal political theory that provided resources for Enlightenment civic culture. Lockean or social contract varieties of liberal political theory drew part of their credibility and effectiveness from the conceptual and rhetorical common ground they shared from the beginning with modern foundationalist epistemology. That common ground was defined by the doctrine of the autonomy of reason and this doctrine was the basis of another variety of modernist liberal political theory whose misrepresentation of citizenship continues to generate problems of intelligibility for us.
The link between foundationalist epistemology and modernist liberalism
Foundationalist epistemologists conceived of the faculty of reason itself as the origin of the critical standards it brought to bear in the assessment of cognitive claims. For them, reason was autonomous in the assessment of truth claims, subject to no authority other than itself. Modernist liberal political theory saw the theoretical justification of political arrangements as work proper to this autonomous faculty of reason in its practical application. More importantly, modernist liberals sought to establish a connection between the standpoint of autonomous reason and the attitudes, dispositions, and values proper to liberal democratic citizenship. They sought to extend the notion of a rationally autonomous knower from the cognitive into the political realm and use it to define the normative standpoint of liberal democratic citizenship.
Modernist liberalism thus not only attributed to the standpoint of citizenship an historical and anthropological priority, but also an autonomy in matters of political morality analogous to the autonomy of reason in matters of truth. This historical and conceptual link between modernist liberal political theory and foundationalist conceptions of knowledge continues today to generate confusion about the nature of liberal democratic citizenship -- the sort of confusion that still compels some to view adherence to civic values as groundless and unjustified if those values cannot be shown to be the expression of an autonomous and universal faculty of reason.
In order to free ourselves from such confusions, it is important for us to see that the modernist liberal conception of liberal democratic citizenship as a function of an autonomous faculty of reason was not just a mistake. It is quite possible to construct an illuminating analogy between the normative standpoint of citizenship and the purported standpoint of an autonomous rational faculty. But while this analogy may have played a useful role in the context of modernist civic culture, today, in view of the contemporary demise of the modernist doctrine of the autonomy of reason, it invites only misunderstanding.
The project of inventing a viable postmodern civic culture requires that we find a new way of understanding the nature of liberal democratic citizenship, one that no longer commits us to viewing citizenship as involving the exercise of reason in some metaphysically or epistemologically privileged sense. The modernist liberal conception of the citizen as “man" of reason was grounded in a metaphor that has lost its power to illuminate the practice of citizenship. But to free ourselves from the influence of this metaphor, it is important to understand how it could have ever been illuminating.
The doctrine of the autonomy of reason
The modernist doctrine of the autonomy of reason received its first and most influential formulation as the methodological point of departure for Descartes’ project of providing the new mathematical physics with an absolutely secure metaphysical foundation. That project arose in the early seventeenth century partially in response to the ethnic, class, and religious warfare that erupted in Europe following the Reformation. By 1620, Europe had suffered over one hundred years of civil strife provoked by disputes about religious doctrine and authority.
One cultural response to these conflicts over opposing truth claims was the reemergence of a Pyrrhonian skepticism regarding all truth claims. This skepticism — identified today above all with Montaigne — was steeped in the spirit of tolerance and openness that the rhetorical culture of the Renaissance engendered. Descartes’ response took a quite different tack. Skepticism and religious warfare seemed to him to feed off one another. If reason can provide no criterion for assessing opposing doctrinal truth claims, then rational discourse is useless in the resolution of doctrinal disputes and force can plausibly be seen to have a legitimate role in resolving socially divisive disputes over matters of truth. Descartes’ project was to rehabilitate rational discourse by an attack on skepticism. He set out to show that reason, by itself, does indeed provide a criterion for assessing opposing truth claims, a criterion that infallibly distinguishes true statements from false and the knowable from the unknowable.
Descartes discovered that infallible criterion of truth by giving free rein to skepticism, permitting himself to doubt every truth claim that in any way proved to be anything less than fully self-validating. If, after letting skepticism have full sway, he could indeed identify a proposition immune to skeptical argument, a proposition whose truth all who consider it must acknowledge, then Descartes could declare skepticism to be defeated and reason to be in possession of a criterion of truth. The self-validating proposition that Descartes claimed to have discovered was, of course, “I think, therefore I exist."
Descartes took this proposition to be a statement about the world, a statement affirming the actual existence of a particular entity, a particular thinking being. He took it to be a true proposition whose truth depended in no way upon any contingent state of affairs or personal religious commitments, a proposition that is necessarily true each time it is affirmed regardless of the time and place of its affirmation -- for to affirm a proposition is in fact an act of thinking and no act can exist without an existing agent. For Descartes, the truth of this proposition was self-evident to every human being capable of affirming any proposition whatever.
Perception of its truth did not depend on the possession of prudence, special experience, or any other quality that persons possessed only by virtue of membership in one or another ethnic, class, or religious community. Perception of the truth of this proposition depended only on the capacity to inspect carefully the content of any proposition without regard to the pleasurable or painful consequences of affirming it, or the particular authorities asserting its truth, or the veneration in which it is held by friends and relatives -- that is to say, without regard to its rhetorical dimension or the rhetorical situation it addresses.
This was a capacity for a special kind of reflection, a capacity for inspecting the content of a proposition without taking into account the context of its utterance, a capacity requiring the deliberate adoption of a standpoint imagined to be external to every particular rhetorical situation and therefore unaffected by any particular set of cultural assumptions. For Descartes, this was the standpoint intrinsic to reason itself, the “natural light."
This standpoint of pure reflection provided Descartes with the absolutely autonomous criterion that he needed in order to distinguish (1) statements that in fact carry truth claims from those that do not, and (2), among statements actually bearing truth claims, the true from the false. Applying this criterion, only those propositions carry truth claims whose content can be clearly and distinctly conceived from the culture-neutral standpoint of pure decontextualized representation. Only such propositions are candidates for admission into the realm of cognition.
Statements advanced as true only for certain purposes or in certain contexts or for certain audiences (e.g., a particular community of religious belief) thus do not, strictly speaking, carry truth claims at all. Discourses consisting of such statements do not qualify as cognitive discourses. Such discourses are to be measured by other standards, standards derived from the external contexts and accidental circumstances to which they are addressed. Those standards are arbitrary and dependent. When such standards are applied in evaluating statements, reason is not being used autonomously. The standards are drawn from rules and principles external to reason itself.
Accordingly, if only those statements carry truth claims that can be conceived clearly and distinctly from the context-free, culture-neutral standpoint of autonomous reason, the truth or falsity of such statements must be determined solely by reference to the rules and principles inherent in that standpoint -- the rules, as we would say today, of deductive and inductive logic. These rules are inherent in reason itself in the sense that they are rules for connecting sentences to one another intelligibly without regard for their contexts of utterance, without regard to rhetorical considerations of speaker, audiences, intent, and circumstances. Thus, implicit in the methodological starting point of Descartes’ project of overcoming skepticism is an unambiguous affirmation of the doctrine of the autonomy of human reason.
Enlightenment as the political standpoint of the scholar or scientist
Once this notion of an absolutely autonomous faculty of reason gained some credibility and acceptance, it was then used to license a whole range of new cognitive discourses that appealed to autonomous human reason as their sole basis and claim to authority. Hobbes was the first to extend the vocabulary and style of argument proper to these new cognitive discourses into the field of political affairs -- the first to attempt the construction of a political and moral science that based normative political claims on criteria purportedly drawn from reason alone. But it was perhaps Kant who provided the most perspicuous expression of the modernist linkage of liberal political norms to the doctrine of the autonomy of reason.
In his famous article, “What Is Enlightenment?" Kant answered the question posed in its title in such a way that his audience could have no doubt that liberal political norms were dictated by and alone consistent with the exercise of autonomous human reason. “Sapere aude! ‘Have courage to use your own reason!’ -- that is the motto of enlightenment." Needless to say, Kant here was not identifying enlightenment with just any person’s capacity to think clearly about his or her particular interests and welfare as a member of a particularistic cultural community. Of course, members of particular ethnic, class, and religious communities differ in their ability to master the vocabulary and apply the ranking systems that prevail in their particular communities.
The application of general conceptions grounded in particularistic cultural world views definitely involves what we now call reasoning skills and some people develop these skills to a greater degree than others. But Kant’s call to enlightenment was clearly not a call to develop reasoning skills of that sort. He was not interested in encouraging persons to become more thoroughly self-consistent and self-critical Lutherans, Prussians, or peasants. For Kant, as for all modernist liberals, the use of human reason in the honorific sense involved the use of critical standards that were drawn not from particularistic loyalties and commitments, but rather from reason itself.
To the extent that a person strives to think in an orderly way about any subject matter merely as a member of a particular ethnic, class, or religious community, that person is not, in Kant’s vocabulary, using his or her own reason. Such a person, for Kant, would not be enlightened. To be enlightened, one must think and speak from a very different standpoint or identity, one no longer subject to particularistic ethnic, class, or religious ranking systems and world views.
Kant’s injunction to use “one’s own reason," thus implies the existence of a critical standpoint external to all historically-conditioned and particularistic world views. To think for oneself, i.e., to think independently of the rules laid down by Pope, prince, employer, class, profession, village, and nation, is to adopt this standpoint. It is this standpoint that Kant identifies with the faculty of reason. To whom, then, is the Kantian injunction addressed?
It is certainly not addressed to any person insofar as he or she is the bearer of what we have called a communitarian identity. A person bears a communitarian identity insofar as he or she accepts or answers to descriptions using the vocabulary and ranking systems proper to a particular ethnic, class, or religious community. Kant’s injunction to use “one’s own reason" is thus an injunction to regard the reasoning that goes on in the pursuit of particularistic conceptions of the good life as not “real" reasoning and thereby as not one’s own -- which is to say that it was an injunction to regard one’s communitarian identity as external to one’s “real" self. What then is “real" reasoning and what is it that defines the “real" self?
The answer that Kant gives in his article, “What Is Enlightenment?" is, of course, well known. Enlightenment is about the free use of reason. Reason is free only when subject to its own rules and criteria. The free use of reason is the use made of it by the scholar (i.e., for us, the scientist). The scholar issues purely rational discourses, i.e., discourses governed by the criteria derived from reason alone. As discourses governed by reason alone, the scholar’s speech is genuinely cognitive speech.
The scholar or scientist is one who possesses knowledge that is universal. The scholar or scientist speaks not as a member of one or another ethnic, class, or religious community, but rather as one who stands outside all such particularistic communities. The scholar or scientist is the quintessentially public person. To use “one’s own reason," therefore, is to speak as a scholar to the public. It is to speak to the whole community as a world-community, a community of persons not differentiated by particularistic ranking systems and world views. It is to speak from what we have called one’s civic identity, i.e., one’s identity as a member of the civic community.
The epistemological or cognitive priority of the standpoint of citizenship
In this famous article, then, Kant clearly takes as a given the metaphorical link between the autonomous standpoint of pure reason and the normative standpoint of citizenship. The social embodiment of autonomous reason is the autonomous scholar or intellectual. The autonomous scholar is another name for the autonomous citizen. Here the faculty of cognition and the capacity for political liberty are defined as mutually implied and interdependent.
Here too civic identity is given a new sort of priority over communitarian identity. Just as social contract narratives attributed to the normative standpoint of citizenship an historical and anthropological priority, the metaphorical assimilation of the standpoint of citizenship to the standpoint of autonomous reason attributed to civic identity the sort of priority to communitarian identity that, in the defunct language of foundationalist epistemology, the transcendental ego had to the empirical ego. Just as the Kantian transcendental ego is the ground or underlying permanent reality of the conditioned and finite empirical ego, so also the civic self is the ground or underlying permanent reality of the conditioned and finite communitarian self. As the discourses that are genuinely cognitive and as the world that is genuinely known take priority over subjective impressions and the world of popular opinion, so also does civic identity take priority over communitarian identity.
In this article, this peculiar cognitive/metaphysical common ground shared by modernist epistemology and by modernist liberal political theory could not be more obvious. The doctrine of the autonomy of human reason in the sphere of cognition mandates, when translated into the political sphere, the doctrine of political liberty. The normatively free citizen is also the cognitively free thinker -- in Kant’s terms, the scholar or intellectual. The foundationalist epistemological arguments that underwrite claims to objective truth also ultimately underwrite demands for the rights of citizenship.
This analogy between the standpoints of the ideally autonomous citizen and the ideally autonomous knower defined modernist liberal political theory and determined the character of the modernist form of civic culture that it generated. Like all great metaphors that succeed in shaping history, it gave rise to a comprehensive interpretation of the world by equating two very unlike things in a way that nevertheless illuminated both and gave both a new kind of intelligibility.
The modernist conception of the purely objective and autonomous knower was drawn from classical conceptions of the contemplative life. The modernist liberal conception of the normative citizen was drawn from classical conceptions of the political or active life. But, in the seventeenth century, for whatever the historical reasons, these two ideals were intertwined in ways entirely unfamiliar to classical philosophy. Whereas, for Aristotle, pursuit of the contemplative life led the philosopher to turn away from political affairs, for modern philosophy, the standpoint of the pure, contemplative knower became a model for the standpoint of the active citizen. It might be the case that this modern appropriation of the classical ideal of pure theory may tell us something about the concealed political significance of the contemplative life as it was classically understood. Without doubt, however, it tells us something important about the nature of modern citizenship.
Classical republicanism and classical conceptions of the political life presupposed a community united by a shared conception of the good. Modern liberalism presupposes the opposite. Modern conceptions of citizenship assume that the civic community will be composed of a number of diverse ethnic, class, and religious communities defined by conflicting world views and ranking systems. Membership in such a civic community makes very different demands on citizens. Modern citizens must strive to attain a far greater degree of detachment from their particularistic value commitments. In order to address one another as free and equal individuals within the liberal democratic public sphere, citizens must cultivate a far greater critical distance from their communitarian identities than classical citizenship required.
The model for this extreme detachment became the detachment of the pure philosophical knower, the transcendental ego -- the standpoint of a person who has embraced an identity completely separate from all particularistic commitments and beliefs in order to gain a knowledge of universal truth. This is what is illuminating about the modernist liberal identification of the normative citizen with the pure knower: it makes clear the degree of detachment from adherence to totalizing particularistic beliefs and values that modern citizenship requires.
This identification also served well as the basis for a form of civic culture. It provided a clear measure of and clear direction for development of the capacities proper to modern citizenship. In effect, modernist liberal civic culture invited citizens of liberal democracies to become citizens in the full cultural sense by learning to adopt the standpoint of the pure knower, i.e., the universal standpoint of one who has resolved to adopt only those criteria of truth that are applicable to all persons, without regard to their membership in particular ethnic, class, or religious communities.
Why the postmodern reconstruction of civic culture also requires a rethinking of our conceptions of reason and knowledge
While this identification between ideal citizen and pure knower produced and supported a most effective form of civic culture for over three hundred years, it has now become a liability. The cognitive enterprise that originated with Galilean mathematical physics has by now become an enterprise that would no longer even be recognized by its founders. The Cartesian doctrine of the autonomy of human reason was designed as an explanation and defense of that earlier cognitive enterprise. But in an age when science is anything but the province of autonomous knowers, when cognitive enterprises have become well-financed, internally complex, multi-audience, nationally organized, economically necessary, militarily vital, professionalized research enterprises, the doctrine of the autonomy of human reason is simply obsolete, marginally useful today perhaps only as an ideology supportive of the independence of research institutions. Science, in short, has become something vastly different than anything that Descartes could have imagined.
The myth of an autonomous faculty of human reason has retained whatever currency it continues to have because it has played such a central role in modernist civic culture. This doctrine has so far been the most effective cultural support for the production and reproduction of civic values in contemporary liberal democracies. But this usefulness is now at an end.
For us today, the doctrine of a universal and autonomous faculty of human reason has lost its credibility. The analogy between the ideal citizen and the pure knower no longer illuminates our contemporary experience of citizenship. We must today think beyond this analogy if we are to succeed in the invention of a new form of liberal democratic civic culture that will succeed the old. But this analogy up until now has provided the basis of the political vocabulary identified with liberalism as such.
The first task in the project of reinventing liberalism must be to free liberalism as a conception of citizenship and political life from this modernist vocabulary. Because of the origins of that vocabulary in the myth of an autonomous faculty of reason, the postmodern reconstruction of civic culture requires a radical shift in the way we speak not only about citizenship, but also about reason and cognition.
Page last edited: 01/21/02
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