Reconstructing Civic Culture
Philosophy and Civil Society
A postmodern civic culture must provide a new conception of the nature of citizenship, one capable of motivating citizens to develop civic identities.
A postmodern civic culture will no doubt differ in many significant ways from the form of civic culture that developed under the influence of modernist liberal political theory. But in whatever other ways a postmodern civic culture may differ from its predecessor, it definitely must differ in two respects.
Let us examine briefly what
these two tasks specifically require.
The problem of intelligibility and the rhetorical turn
1. In order to address the intelligibility problems produced by modernist liberal political theory, a postmodern civic culture must provide a conception of citizenship thoroughly independent of foundationalist epistemological modes of thought. Modernist liberalism, in its rhetorical use of Enlightenment conceptions of reason and knowledge -- i.e., in its use of the anti-rhetorical rhetoric of pure theory -- established and worked from an analogy between the normative standpoint of liberal democratic citizenship and the standpoint of the autonomously rational objective knower. This connection generated an essentialist and universalist conception of the standpoint of citizenship that represented civic identity as anthropologically and metaphysically prior to communitarian identity.
Among the negative consequences of this twofold attribution of priority were, first, the systematic neglect of civic culture as a factor in the production and reproduction of civic values and, second, the widespread belief that civic moral ideals were somehow dependent for their legitimacy on a proof demonstrating their deducibility from timeless and universal principles -- whether these principles be drawn from some imagined natural human condition or from the imagined traits of the faculty of pure practical reason.
A postmodern civic culture must sever once and for all this connection between the normative standpoint of citizenship and an autonomous faculty of reason. A postmodern civic culture will no longer require the services of epistemologists or metaphysicians. It will take as its point of departure a rejection of the anti-rhetorical rhetoric of pure theory -- or, more positively, it will embrace rhetorical practice and analysis as instruments and resources for the production and reproduction of civic values.
In short, a postmodern liberalism must take a rhetorical turn. It must start from a rejection of the essentialist and universalist conception of the normative standpoint of citizenship identified with modernist liberalism and an affirmation of the historically situated and particularistic nature of civic values.
The problem of motivation and the teleological turn
2. In order to address the motivational problems produced by modernist liberal political theory, a postmodern civic culture must offer new resources for motivating citizens to develop civic identities and capacities, resources that are no longer dependent upon the essentialist and universalist conception of citizenship proper to modernist liberalism.
This essentialist conception of citizenship had the effect of undermining and disparaging particularistic conceptions of the good life. The communitarian identities shaped by particularistic conceptions of the good were represented by modernist liberalism as arbitrary and groundless. This basic strategy of motivation was embodied in the two most influential moral standpoints generated by modernist liberal political theory -- what I have called the civic ethics of authenticity and the civic ethics of autonomy. These moral ideals differed from the moral ideals identified with particular ethnic, class, and religious communities not only by their claim to universality, but also by their peculiarly formal nature.
The civic ethics of authenticity -- largely associated with Lockean or social contractarian styles of modernist liberalism -- motivated citizens to achieve the normative civic standpoint of free and equal individuality by representing as an ideal the free-standing individual of the pre-political natural condition. But the free-standing individual of the natural condition is represented in social contract narratives as motivated only by the goal of self-interest in general. A person motivated to pursue only his or her own self-interest is not motivated to pursue any specific goal or move in any specific direction. From the admonition to be authentic alone, no specific conception of the good or ranking system or concept of excellence can be inferred.
The same formalism also characterizes the civic ethics of autonomy. The civic ethics of autonomy -- largely associated with Kantian styles of modernist liberalism -- motivated citizens to achieve the normative civic standpoint of free and equal individuality by representing as an ideal a pure self-determination analogous to that of the autonomous rational knower. Once again, the purely self-determining individual is conceived of only as an autonomous chooser. The actual content of the choice remains undetermined. From the admonition to be autonomous alone, no specific conception of the good or ranking system or concept of excellence can be inferred.
Thus, both the modernist civic ethics of authenticity and autonomy were characterized by a peculiar formalism or lack of specific content. As moral ideals, they mandated not a particular way of life, but rather universal ways of choosing and living a particular way of life. This formalism was expressed in modernist liberal political theory in the doctrine of the priority of the right over the good.
In different ways, both the civic ethics of authenticity and the civic ethics of autonomy embodied this doctrine. They were non-teleological: they mandated a particular how of action rather than a particular why or end of action. At the extreme, as we have seen, these moral ideals even called into question the value of all particularistic conceptions of the good -- affirming the priority of the right by calling attention to the contingent and arbitrary character of all particularistic and historically conditioned conceptions of the good.
At the extreme, then, the moral ideals generated by modernist liberal civic culture represented the worst of both worlds. They required citizens to develop a skeptical attitude toward the values of the particular ethnic, class, and religious communities to which they belonged and to adopt as their primary stance in life the purely formal and vacuous identity of an authentic self or an autonomous chooser.
A postmodern civic culture must take as its point of departure a rejection of this modernist conception of the priority of the right over the good. It must begin with the affirmation of the ideal of citizenship as a particularistic moral ideal capable of giving life particularistic content and direction. As a particularistic moral ideal, it is not a merely empty and formal mandating of a particular how of choice, but rather the mandating of a specific what — i.e., a specific life ideal, a specific conception of the good life.
In short, a postmodern liberalism must take a teleological turn. It must reinterpret the modernist liberal doctrine of the priority of the right over the good in a way that both gives the notion of moral rightness specific ethical content and, at the same time, makes the affirmation of moral rightness compatible with respect for and the pursuit of particularistic cultural conceptions of the good.
Page last edited: February 03, 2002
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Thomas Bridges. All rights reserved.
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