The Nature of Civic Culture
Philosophy and Civil Society

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Theme: How civic culture, as a countervailing form of culture, transforms the way in which citizens use their primary moral vocabularies
ESSAY 4: The De-Totalizing Function of Civic Culture
 

  

 

  

 

As a component of civic culture, liberal political doctrine positively carries out its assigned function only insofar as it is presented as a de-totalized discourse aimed at achieving a certain kind of de-totalizing effect.










 

 

 

 

 

 




 

 

 

 

 

 







 

 




The problem with totalizing cultural world views is that, at the limit of their development, they can generate a certain politically troublesome linguistic illusion.






















 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 




Speakers of a particular primary moral language must learn to apply the descriptions mandated by that language in such a way as to leave room for the very different descriptions mandated by the moral language of citizenship.


































Citizens in the full cultural sense are those who have gained the capacity to use their primary moral vocabulary with a certain ironic distance. The exercise of this capacity by many citizens accounts for the peculiar ambiguity, complexity and power of moral discourse in a liberal democracy.

 
 
The "partiality" of post-metaphysical liberal philosophy

          When Rawls defines political or rhetorical liberalism in terms of a distinction between comprehensive and partial doctrines, he often seems to suggest that political liberalism represents a retreat from comprehensive or totalizing forms of liberalism.

          For Rawls, comprehensive and political doctrines seem to differ only in scope. Political doctrines are those that apply to a limited range of life issues. Comprehensive doctrines, at the limit, apply to all life issues. But comprehensive conceptions of liberal doctrine, like those of Kant and Mill, tend to generate conflicts with other comprehensive doctrines or totalizing world views. Rawls's view seems to be that, for the sake of political stability, it is necessary to limit the scope of liberal doctrine in order to avoid the risk of such destabilizing conflict.

          Political liberalism, then, would be a form of liberal doctrine that has cut back on its claims, lowered its sights as part of a survival strategy. To the extent that this is actually Rawls's view, then his turn to political liberalism is indeed a retreat. Rawls implies that, if it were possible, a comprehensive liberalism, a totalizing liberal world view adhered to by all citizens, would be preferable to him. But, to secure political stability, we must settle for what is possible. To think of liberal doctrine as partial in this way would thus be to point out a defect. "Partial" here means fragmentary or incomplete. It refers only to the scope of a doctrine or the range of issues it addresses. It points to no quality in political or rhetorical liberalism that might be considered positive or valuable in itself.

          This is the view I want to oppose here. I think that Rawls too, in his better moments, would also oppose it, although he himself does not offer much conceptually that would explain why. To distinguish political or rhetorical liberalism from totalizing or comprehensive doctrines primarily in terms of its range of application is misleading. While its range of application is indeed limited, that fact does not constitute the truly distinguishing mark of political or rhetorical liberalism. A political or rhetorical liberalism is not a stripped-down version of liberalism, put forward as a compromise in the name of social stability.

          Rather, it is a liberalism that has properly understood itself as an component of a liberal democratic civic culture. Because the word "partial" suggests something fragmentary or incomplete, it is better to characterize political or rhetorical liberalism in different terms, in a way that brings into sight the positive significance and impact of this partiality. That is why I prefer to describe political or rhetorical liberalism as a de-totalized and de-totalizing doctrine. As a component of civic culture, liberal political doctrine positively carries out its assigned function only insofar as it is presented as a de-totalized discourse aimed at achieving a certain kind of de-totalizing effect.

The totalizing logic of communitarian world views

          A civic culture must be a countervailing culture. It addresses human beings for whom the normative standpoint of citizenship is neither a spontaneous endowment of nature nor something whose possession is particularly longed for in its absence. Human beings are shaped in their identities and aspirations from earliest childhood by cultural perspectives that provide meaning and direction to life as a whole. The logic that drives such cultural perspectives is a totalistic and totalizing logic. In their development, such cultural perspectives move in the direction of global and exclusive competence.

          As interpretive and evaluative frameworks capable of indefinite extension and elaboration, they reach completion only when they can satisfactorily assign specific meaning and define a specific response to all the fundamental issues of human life -- including sex, friendship, work, suffering, sin, death, and salvation. Persons whose identity and values are shaped exclusively by any such totalizing cultural world view may be laudable in many ways, but they are not, morally and culturally speaking, citizens. Citizens in the full cultural sense are those who have developed the capacity to treat themselves and one another, when appropriate, as free and equal individuals.

          To do this requires a capacity to unplug or put out of play the ranking systems and totalizing interpretive frameworks that normally determine judgment and action in everyday life. For nominal citizens to become citizens in the full cultural sense, they generally need the support of a civic culture that provides a perspective capable of counteracting the effects of those totalizing interpretive frameworks. Thus, a liberal democratic civic culture, as a countervailing culture, must provide perspectives governed by a logic that is de-totalizing in its impact.

          To characterize liberalism, then, as a moral doctrine that is partial rather than comprehensive is to call our attention to a feature of liberalism that involves much more than the question of its range of application. The moral doctrines generated by particularistic cultural world views are comprehensive doctrines in that their cultural function is to provide meaning and direction to the whole of life. Their role is to offer a comprehensive vision of the world, an interpretive and evaluative framework that can be extended and elaborated indefinitely and that, at the limit, can provide a reading of and a strategy for dealing with the entire range of human life issues. In short, the fact that they are totalizing in their logic and scope is to be taken as neither an accident nor as a defect.

          There is a problem with such totalizing world views, however. This problem is not intrinsic to them, but rather exists only when their adherents also happen to be citizens of a liberal democracy. The problem is that these totalizing world views, at the limit of their development, can generate a certain politically troublesome linguistic illusion.

Totalizing cultural traditions and the metaphysical "is"

          Particularistic cultural world views, as global interpretive and evaluative frameworks, provide vocabularies for defining and successfully addressing the basic issues of human life. These vocabularies embody the ranking systems, concepts of virtue, and standards of excellence proper to a particular cultural community. As such, they take root in and inhabit the deepest strata of identity and desire. Like all human vocabularies, these particularistic moral vocabularies are produced through processes of metaphorical transmutation.

          Properly spoken and heard, the descriptions of things and persons licensed by these particularistic moral vocabularies carry what I have called the soft metaphorical "is" rather than the hard metaphysical "is." A description of the world spoken and heard as carrying a soft metaphorical "is" is one that is heard and spoken as a redescription. The metaphorical "is" works, i.e., achieves its effect on thought and feeling, by virtue of an act of linguistic aggression by which an identity is asserted of two unlike things -- e.g., "My love is a rose."

          For a metaphor to work, its audience must retain a lively sense of the unlikeness of the things identified. In the terminology of classical rhetoric, metaphor achieves its effect by eliciting a play of difference between like and unlike, between res and verbum. A description of the world spoken and heard as carrying a hard metaphysical "is," however, imposes on things an identity devoid of difference. Res and verbum collapse into a lifeless unity. The world "is" precisely what it is described as being and nothing else.

          This is the sort of linguistic illusion that can be generated by totalizing cultural world views and particularly by those that are most powerful and successful. It consists in a certain forgetfulness about the metaphorical origins of all human vocabularies. Such forgetfulness may or may not have a negative impact on the development of the particular cultural traditions suffering it, but it definitely poses a danger for any liberal democracy.

          For a liberal democratic regime to survive, let alone flourish, large numbers of its citizens must develop the capacity to use a second moral vocabulary in addition to their first. This second moral vocabulary is that proper to the public sphere of a liberal democracy. It licenses descriptions of things and persons that are compatible with a recognition of the free and equal individuality of every citizen. As such, it embodies and defines the normative standpoint of liberal democratic citizenship.

          This secondary vocabulary is parasitic upon the first. Just as civic identity exists only as a modification of communitarian identity, so also this secondary moral vocabulary gets its meaning only through its difference from primary moral vocabularies. It licenses descriptions of things and persons that gain their impact only through their relationship of metaphorical tension to the descriptions licensed by primary moral vocabularies -- i.e., only by being spoken and heard as redescriptions.

          It is at this point that the linguistic illusion generated by successful cultural world views can come into conflict with the cultural requirements of liberal democracy. Primary moral vocabularies quite properly embody the ranking systems, virtue concepts and standards of excellence proper to a particularistic cultural community. Primary moral vocabularies warrant descriptions of things and persons as defined and ranked by particularistic interpretive and evaluative frameworks. It is by warranting such descriptions that particularistic moral traditions effectively give meaning and direction to human desire.

          On the other hand, the secondary moral vocabulary of citizenship licenses very different descriptions of things and persons, descriptions consistent with the recognition of all persons, regardless of their rank as measured by particularistic standards of excellence or achievement, as free and equal individuals. Competence in this secondary moral language of citizenship thus really consists in a special kind of competence in speaking a primary moral language. Speakers of a particular primary moral language must learn to apply the descriptions mandated by that language in such a way as to leave room for the very different descriptions mandated by the moral language of citizenship. Citizens must gain the ability to speak and hear interpretive and evaluative descriptions in a way that reflects a lively sense of the difference between the evaluative principles of the two moral languages.

Striking a balance between totalizing and de-totalizing cultural standpoints

          It may be possible, then, to speak a primary moral language simply and directly, with no sense at all that the descriptions of things and persons licensed by that language are not perfect fits. But it is not possible to speak the moral language of citizenship in that simple and direct way.

          The very aim of the secondary moral language mandated by citizenship is to loosen the fit between things and persons and the descriptions of them licensed by primary moral languages. Thus, a working-class Italian-American Catholic, for example, in everyday life contexts, describes self and others in terms that reflect ranking systems proper to certain ethnic and religious cultural milieus -- in terms that, say, show a certain kind of respect for family connection and religious identification. A working-class Italian-American Catholic who is also a citizen, i.e., who has attained competence in the language game of citizenship, applies the same evaluative descriptions to the world, but speaks and hears those descriptions, as it were, synecdochically, so that they take on a figurative significance.

          The description of a particular police officer as "the law" carries its full figurative weight and significative value only as long as its audience holds the distinction between the two -- i.e., the individual police office and the coercive legal order in general -- clearly in view. In the same way, the moral language of citizenship requires its speakers and hearers to introduce into every evaluative description a note of difference, to hold apart the res of free and equal individuality from the verbum of evaluative categorization.

          Thus, persons who have attained the competence to speak their primary moral language "civilly," i.e., with this awareness of difference, are those capable of keeping more or less continuously in view the metaphorical nature of the moral descriptions they apply to others. The "is" of attribution through which they apply those descriptions is far more likely to be spoken by such persons as a soft metaphorical "is" rather than as a hard metaphysical "is." Citizens in the full cultural sense are those who have gained this capacity to use their primary moral vocabulary with a certain ironic distance. The exercise of this capacity by many citizens accounts for the peculiar ambiguity, complexity, and power of moral discourse in a liberal democracy.

          However, not every cultural tradition is strong and capacious enough to acknowledge the metaphorical character of its own moral vocabulary. Ideally, when a primary moral language is spoken and heard in and through the play of metaphorical difference, it gains in power and creativity. But some cultural communities can survive only by closing the divide separating res and verbum and by insisting that their members take the descriptions they apply to the world as simply the world itself.

          In a liberal democracy, such communities are likely to become isolated and even to mobilize against liberal democratic moral ideals. Such reactions are ultimately to be accounted for by the totalizing character of particularistic cultural world views. Under the most fortunate circumstances, the logic of cultural totalization and the logic of cultural difference can be complementary, but more often they remain antagonistic. In a liberal democracy, this tension can never be finally overcome. The best that can be achieved is a balance of forces between the drive toward totalization operative in particularistic cultural communities and the de-totalizing resources of a civic culture.

          A de-totalized and de-totalizing form of liberal political philosophy should be one of those resources. A de-totalized version of liberal political philosophy would be one that, in its self-definition and presentation, could not be mistaken for any sort of totalizing conception of the world. The rhetorical turn, the conception of liberal doctrine as a component of civic culture, constitutes the first step in this direction.

          Rhetorical modes of analysis by themselves have a de-totalizing impact on doctrinal claims of all types. The rhetorical conception of knowledge as pistis or belief (as opposed to episteme or demonstrably certain cognition) introduces an element of difference or otherness into every doctrinal truth claim. Pistis is the state of being persuaded. The cognitive state of being persuaded is very different from the cognitive state consisting in certainty or the possession of demonstrable truth. A proof is final. But what I am persuaded of today I may not be persuaded of tomorrow. When I reflectively label what I take to be the actual properties of things and persons as matters of persuasion, i.e., as descriptions that I am now convinced really apply to those things and persons, I implicitly recognize a distinction between my descriptions and the things and persons they describe.

          A rhetorical conception of knowledge in this way incorporates permanent recognition of the divide separating res and verbum. Thus, the rhetorical turn itself, strictly carried through, is something like an immunization against a totalizing inclination toward the metaphysical "is" -- i.e., toward any sort of easy identification of description and world.

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Page last edited: January 20, 2002

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