Civic Culture and Modern Philosophy
Philosophy and Civil Society
The abandonment by modernist liberalism of classical conceptions of practical knowledge forced liberal doctrine to assume the form of a logically compelling philosophical justification of liberal political institutions.
From practical knowledge to moral theory
Modernist liberal political theory departed radically from Aristotelian and Socratic political philosophy in the definition of its cognitive tasks. In the first place, modernist liberalism abandoned the very idea that the domain of moral and political practice in the Aristotelian sense could be a cognitive domain at all.
In order to be regarded as a seriously cognitive discourse, modernist liberal political philosophy had to meet the strict standards of "objective" and theoretical truth laid down by foundationalist epistemology. Following classical conceptions of theoretical knowledge, modernist liberal political theory assigned itself the task of deducing from indubitable first principles universal truths about the essence of human political association. The subject matter of Aristotelian practical reflection was thereby reconstituted as a field of theoretical inquiry -- a new cognitive territory covered by a new political science.
The specifically Aristotelian enterprise of providing a vocabulary for the classification and evaluation of constitutions was transformed accordingly. Aristotelian political philosophy addressed and adopted the standpoint of the citizen-ruler engaged in actual political decision-making. Modernist liberalism, in accordance with the imperatives of the rhetoric of pure theory, adopted the rhetorical posture of an absolutely detached spectator regarding a field of audience-independent "political" facts.
Where the cognitive task of the Aristotelian political philosopher was to provide resources for the evaluation of constitutions with respect to a specific set of circumstances, the cognitive task assumed by modernist liberal political theory was the legitimation or justification of political institutions by a quasi-metaphysical deduction proving their conformity with first principles -- i.e., the natural human condition, the autonomous faculty of reason, etc. A theoretically legitimated set of political arrangements were presumed to be universally valid and normative -- the set of political arrangements that all nations should or eventually will adopt. Only this sort of modernist conception of the cognitive task of political philosophy could have produced the bizarre intellectual phenomena of the Cold War -- a struggle between two totalizing social and political systems, systems whose claims to legitimacy rested on conflicting philosophical demonstrations of the conformity of those systems with the objective nature of things.
Thus, the abandonment by modernist liberalism of classical conceptions of practical knowledge forced liberal doctrine to assume the form of a logically compelling philosophical justification of liberal political institutions -- remaining to this day the form that serious presentations of liberal doctrine are required to take. This requirement even haunts Rawls's Political Liberalism, where it is assumed that a quasi-demonstrative procedure of conceptual construction is needed to generate the conception of justice as fairness.
What has always been particularly bizarre about this definition of the cognitive task of liberal political philosophy is the very belief that a theoretical justification of liberal political institutions actually had some kind of intrinsic value. What possible value could a theoretical justification of liberal democracy have in the absence of an effective civic culture?
Where a liberal democracy lacks the cultural resources to make citizenship intelligible to citizens and to motivate them to achieve liberal moral ideals, there will be no citizens and, eventually, no liberal democracy -- even if political philosophers finally come up with a knock-down proof that liberal ideals of civic freedom and equality are written into the foundation of the world. By forcing liberal doctrine into the mold of a metaphysical deduction, modernist liberal political theory thus cast into oblivion the entire Aristotelian cognitive domain of practical knowledge, which is also the sphere of civic culture, that cognitive domain where the only real foundations of liberal democracy are laid.
The modernist identification of civic education with scientific education
If it is true that modernist liberal theory defined its cognitive tasks in ways that promoted neglect of civic culture, it had also potentially an even more damaging effect. It promoted universalist and essentialist misconceptions of liberal moral ideals that today actually have the effect of positively weakening civic culture.
Modernist liberal political philosophy presented liberal doctrine as an integral element of a totalizing cultural perspective -- the "scientific" or naturalist world view. As we have noted, Greek political philosophy was also a component of a totalizing world view. The conception of republican citizenship found in Greek political philosophy was shaped by the pan-Hellenic ethnic project sponsored by Greek philosophy in general. However, the classical distinction between practical and theoretical knowledge gave the sphere of moral and political practice a relative independence from the universalist and essentialist cognitive claims made by Greek metaphysics.
This relative independence allowed for the development of de-totalizing forms of practical reflection that could support development of civic attitudes and values. Both Aristotelian and Socratic modes of political philosophy operated in this cognitive domain of moral and political practice, the cognitive domain of civic culture. But the abandonment of this cognitive domain by modernist liberal political theory eliminated this buffer zone that separated politics from metaphysics in Greek philosophy. Modernist liberal conceptions of citizenship thus became swallowed up by totalizing metaphysical theories about the nature of things. Liberal moral ideals became identified with a cultural perspective that claimed to embrace all humanity.
The most visible and perhaps significant consequence of this modernist identification of the political with the metaphysical is that modernist liberal political theory failed to generate forms of civic education that could be clearly labeled as such. Socratic political philosophy was in practice a form of civic education, a procedure for developing in citizens the capacity to adopt a standpoint of reflective distance from the descriptions of the world licensed by their primary moral vocabularies.
Socrates invented a form of civic education that allowed him to embody dramatically the normative standpoint of republican citizenship. In his rhetorical posture of an inquirer whose only knowledge was his ignorance of the answers to the questions he asked, Socrates was able to express both love for and complete loyalty to particularistic community -- family, friends, city -- while at the same time acknowledging that the particularistic moral vocabulary employed by that community do not define criteria for moral judgment that can claim absolutely universal scope. In other words, Socrates embodied awareness of the distinction between competence in applying particularistic communitarian standards of justice and a knowledge of justice in itself. Socratic political philosophy defined its cognitive task as reflection on the issues raised and procedures employed by the form of civic education Socrates invented.
Modernist liberal political theory, on the other hand, invented nothing corresponding to this form of Socratic civic education. Modernist liberal political theory constructed its conception of the normative standpoint of citizenship by drawing an analogy between the reflective distance from particularistic moral languages required for citizenship and the absolutely objective standpoint of the pure theoretical knower of foundationalist epistemology.
The conception of citizenship based on this analogy produced a new conception of the secondary moral vocabulary proper to civic discourse and a new conception of the way in which citizens develop the capacity to use that secondary moral vocabulary. Because modernist liberalism identified the normative standpoint of citizenship with the standpoint of autonomous reason, the secondary moral vocabulary proper to civic discourse was equated with the radically objective or culture-neutral vocabulary of science.
The function of civic education in a liberal democracy is to help citizens develop the capacity to use the secondary moral vocabulary proper to civic discourse. To the extent that this secondary moral vocabulary was equated with the culture- or value-neutral vocabulary of science, so-called scientific education (i.e., what was conceived as scientific education in accordance with foundationalist epistemological theories) became a de facto form of civic education. The move from the exclusive use of a primary moral language shaped by particularistic cultural values to the more capacious secondary moral language of citizenship was thereby conceived of by modernist liberalism as a move from a language where subjective value judgments predominate to a language that permits only objective cognitive judgments.
Thus, modernist liberal political theory produced no form of civic education that could be clearly labeled as such. The role of civic education was played by "scientific" education -- or, more accurately, by a form of education governed by a curriculum that presented all subject matter in terms of a dogmatically asserted and radical distinction between fact and value, between objective, value-neutral scientific knowledge of reality and subjective value-laden cultural and personal perspectives.
Moral skepticism as the result of modernist liberal civic education
By now we have learned that, whatever the merits or demerits of this so-called "scientific" education as a form of technical education, as a form of civic education it is a disaster. The goal of civic education is to teach citizens to use their primary moral vocabulary in a different way, with an internalized sense of its restricted scope or with a certain ironic distance. To speak a primary moral language in this way introduces a certain tension and ambiguity into its use. The secondary moral language proper to civic discourse is just such a primary moral language spoken in this way. But the "scientific" education licensed by modernist liberalism as a form of civic education does not and cannot have this effect.
To the extent that this "scientific" education was viewed as a surrogate for civic education, the secondary moral language of citizenship was tacitly conceived of as analogous to the supposedly value-neutral cognitive language of science. But the supposedly value-neutral language of science is not a moral language at all. The radical distinction between fact and value on which "scientific" education was based in effect banished all moral language to the realm of the culturally arbitrary and the ontologically irrelevant. If all moral language is culturally arbitrary and ontologically irrelevant however, then each particularistic primary moral vocabulary shares that status with every other. All are equal in their cognitive deficiencies and therefore any choice between conflicting primary moral vocabularies is a purely arbitrary one.
But this view that all primary moral vocabularies are equal in their arbitrary status effectively absolutizes each one, making it immune to any sort of critical reflection. Critical reflection on one's primary moral vocabulary, however, is the heart and soul of civic education. Modernist "scientific" education, therefore, to the extent that it eliminated any motive for the critical examination of primary moral vocabularies, eliminated the necessary condition for the development of a capacity to speak a primary moral language with critical detachment -- which is the very capacity for civic discourse itself.
It is modernist "scientific" education, functioning as a surrogate for civic education, that during the last 100 years in America has brought forth that peculiar educational product, the "closed open mind." This phenomenon occurs when students effectively internalize the message of the "scientific" curriculum and become "open-minded," i.e., learn to see the arbitrary nature and merely relative validity of all particularistic moral values. As a result, they conclude that, because all primary moral vocabularies are equal in their arbitrariness and cognitive deficiency, there is no real point in seriously investigating other cultural world views or in critically examining their own.
Thus, the cognitive tasks identified with both Aristotelian and Socratic varieties of classical political philosophy were abandoned by modernist liberal political theory and replaced with very a very different set of cognitive tasks.
Aristotelian practical reflection on the norms proper to political decision-making was replaced by the theoretical legitimation or justification of regimes. Socratic civic education was replaced by a form of education aimed at promoting adherence to the totalizing world view of modernist science. The common intellectual ground shared by both of these developments was the abandonment of the classical distinction between practical and theoretical knowledge. Modernist liberal political theorists took up the anti-rhetorical rhetoric of pure theory invented by foundationalist epistemologists, and, following them, collapsed the three different cognitive domains of classical philosophy (those of theoretical, practical and technical knowledge) into one: the cognitive domain of pure theory.
Post-metaphysical liberalism and the return to classical models of practical philosophy
We are today paying the price of this modernist redrawing of the cognitive map. Notice, for example, the difficulty we have in classifying the subject matter of a book like Rawls's Political Liberalism. Is the book a contribution to political theory, i.e., to the enterprise of discovering the objective truth about the essence of political morality or the invariable laws governing human political association?
Emphatically not. The book presents a conception of liberalism as a political doctrine, a type of political morality restricted in scope both with respect to those who practice it, i.e., citizens of modern constitutional democracies, and with respect to the range of human issues it addresses. Well, is the book then to be understood as an application of theory (the modernist sense of "practical")? Is it a book on social or political policy? Or does Rawls make an argument for his conception of justice as fairness that is designed to win adherents for a particular political program?
Hardly. The book's argument is far too abstract for that. It presents itself as a philosophical reflection about the basis and limits of liberal democratic political morality, as a conception of the norms proper to a particular form of political association. But what do we call this sort of exercise? Is it speaking of anything that we, applying modernist standards, would call a conception of morality at all? It comes with no metaphysical pedigree. It finds its only foundations in a particular contingent way of life. Seen with modernist eyes, an arbitrary and groundless morality such as this would be devoid of universally binding normative force.
Even Rawls seems to be uncertain about how to classify in general terms the subject matter and goals of Political Liberalism. He presents his conception of liberal morality as validated by a constructionist procedure almost, but not quite, like a Kantian one. It seems that his careful observance of all the rhetorical conventions of modernist liberal political theory functions almost as a strategy for avoiding the question. But this question cannot be avoided.
Nothing can hide the fact that Political Liberalism stands on what is, for us at least, new cognitive ground. It is the cognitive ground of Aristotelian practical philosophy. It remains to be seen how far classical conceptions of practical knowledge can advance our project of inventing a postmodern political or rhetorical conception of liberal doctrine. It seems to me, however, that we will make no sense at all of this project until we have succeeded in recovering the basic perspectives underlying Aristotelian practical philosophy and Socratic civic education.
Page last edited: 01/28/02
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Thomas Bridges. All rights reserved.
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