Reconstructing Civic Culture
Philosophy and Civil Society

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Theme: How the demise of modernist civic culture requires a radical change in the vocabulary we use to make intelligible the nature of liberal democratic citizenship
ESSAY 3: The Rhetorical Turn and the Intelligibility Crisis in Contemporary Civic Culture
 

  

 

  


 

 


The old vocabulary of citizenship is now defunct. The new one has yet to be coined.


































 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 





With the postmodern reconstruction of civic culture, the standpoint of citizenship will come to be lived differently -- it will come to be lived as a standpoint that is culturally constructed and that pertains to only a part and not the whole of life.






















 

 

 







 

 

 

 

 

 




As represented by metaphysical liberalism, liberal moral ideals have often seemed to be part of a totalizing world view that was not only in competition with other totalizing world views, but also actively hostile to religious world views in particular.

 
 
New problems with the intelligibility of liberal democratic citizenship

          Let us make sure that we understand the connection between what I call the rhetorical turn in liberal political philosophy and the issue of the intelligibility of the standpoint and norms proper to liberal democratic citizenship.

          Liberal democracies make extraordinary cultural demands on their citizens. They require that citizens develop and cultivate attitudes, dispositions, identities, and moral capacities that do not just spontaneously occur among human beings. These qualities must be produced in citizens by a special sort of countervailing culture -- what I have called a civic culture. A civic culture is composed of discourses, narratives, and representations of various sorts that are designed to promote among citizens the development and cultivation of civic capacities.

          Any civic culture has two functions in particular that it must successfully carry out: (1) it must provide cultural resources for rendering the normative standpoint of citizenship intelligible to citizens, and (2) it must provide cultural resources for motivating citizens to develop and exercise the capacities proper to citizenship. Among the cultural resources available at least to modern forms of liberal democratic civic culture is the sort of discourse known as political philosophy. What I have called the rhetorical turn is a development affecting this particular discursive resource.

          I have called this development a rhetorical turn in order to characterize the sort of shift that has occurred. Other terms could be used. Rawls, for example, characterizes this reorientation of liberal political philosophy as a shift from a metaphysical liberalism to a political liberalism. At this point, no characterization can be final, since the process of reorientation is still in its infancy. In my view, the description of this reorientation in political philosophy as a rhetorical turn has some advantage right now in that it establishes a contrast between old and new suggestive of new directions for inquiry.

          Modernist metaphysical liberalism in both literary form and content defined itself in opposition to rhetorical conceptions of reason and knowledge. Rhetorical conceptions of reason and knowledge are characterized by an affirmation of the audience-directedness of all discourse and the audience-dependence of all subject matter. Modernist metaphysical liberalism embraced the anti-rhetorical rhetoric of pure theory. In its literary form, it presented itself as a purely theoretical discourse, a discourse seeking to articulate the audience-independent truth about an audience-independent subject matter. Characterizing the contemporary reorientation of political philosophy as a rhetorical turn, then, helps to keep in focus not only the crucial issues raised by this reorientation, but also where it is leading us.

          In any case, whatever terms we use for it, it should be clear how a shift of this magnitude affecting an important component of civic culture could produce problems. We should not exaggerate the importance of metaphysical liberalism as a cultural support for liberal democracy. Until the early 1900s, for example, Protestant Christianity no doubt played a more crucial role in the effective civic culture of the United States than modernist liberalism did. But, as the cultural diversity of American society has increased and the influence of Protestant Christianity has diminished, civic culture in America has become more dependent upon the universalist and essentialist ideas of modernist liberal political philosophy as its primary resource for rendering intelligible to citizens the nature of liberal democratic citizenship.

          The influence of modernist liberal ideas has been particularly evident since the 1950s in discussions of universal human and civil rights and in conceptions of the cultural neutrality of the liberal democratic state. This means that, to the extent that American civic culture has been effective in actually producing citizens in the full cultural sense, citizenship will be understood by such citizens in large measure through the use of a vocabulary shaped by the universalist and essentialist world view of modernist liberalism.

          The shift from modernist metaphysical liberalism to political or rhetorical liberalism therefore entails significant changes in the vocabulary that citizens must use to understand and reproduce in others the civic capacities they have achieved. This is what I have referred to as the intelligibility crisis in contemporary civic culture. The old vocabulary of citizenship is now defunct. The new one has yet to be coined.

The cultural reconstruction of citizenship

          The project of inventing a postmodern civic culture is the project of inventing this new vocabulary. The difficulties and dangers involved in this project are substantial. To the extent that modernist liberal political theory has indeed been influential in forming culturally effective conceptions of citizenship, our understanding of what it means to be a citizen is bound up with the totalizing and universalist vocabulary of modernist European culture in general. The vocabulary of a political or rhetorical liberalism will be radically different.

          The perspectives underlying that vocabulary will be even more alien. Universalist and essentialist conceptions of liberal moral ideas will disappear. The new vocabulary of citizenship will be shaped by conceptions of liberal moral ideals that emphasize their cultural particularism and their partial nature. To some, the reorientation within liberal political thought will seem, as a result, like a rejection of liberal moral ideals altogether. The shift from modernist metaphysical liberalism to political or rhetorical liberalism thus amounts to a cultural transformation not merely of generational but even epochal proportions.

          This shift requires a rethinking of virtually every aspect of liberal democratic citizenship. One of the most difficult tasks involved in this project is the reinterpretation of the capacities and attitudes proper to citizenship as qualities pertaining to only a partial aspect of life. Rawls gives special emphasis to this feature of the shift from metaphysical to political liberalism.

          Modernist metaphysical liberalism presented itself as what Rawls terms a "comprehensive" doctrine. According to Rawls, a comprehensive doctrine is a doctrine that, at the extreme, applies to all subjects. It is a doctrine including "conceptions of what is of value in human life, ideals of personal virtue and character . . .that are to inform much of our nonpolitical conduct (in the limit our life as a whole)."1

          On the other hand, according to Rawls, political liberalism is a doctrine that is partial -- i.e., it is "worked out for a specific subject, namely, the basic structure of society."2 As such, it is a doctrine that pertains to a specific part -- i.e., the political part, our lives as citizens -- and not to the whole of life. Rawls thus distinguishes modernist metaphysical liberalism from political or rhetorical liberalism in two ways.

          First, while metaphysical liberalism was universalist and essentialist doctrine, a doctrine claiming to pronounce the truth about the very essence of political morality, political or rhetorical liberalism is a particularistic cultural doctrine, defining only the norms proper to one particular and contingent form of political association. Second, while metaphysical liberalism, in its universalism and essentialism, was a comprehensive or totalizing doctrine, a doctrine applying to the whole of life, political or rhetorical liberalism is a doctrine that applies to only a part of life, the part concerned with the capacities and norms proper to liberal democratic citizenship.

          For Rawls, then, the postmodern reorientation of liberal political philosophy should be read as a shift from a conception of liberalism as a universalist and comprehensive doctrine to a conception of liberalism as a particularistic and partial doctrine. When we speak of liberalism as a doctrine in this way, however, we should remind ourselves that we are not talking about mere "theories" of liberalism. If we understand liberal political philosophy as a component of civic culture, then we must see it as addressed to an audience, i.e., citizens, and, to the extent it is effective, as shaping that audience's experience of the subject matter, i.e., its experience of citizenship and liberal democratic political life in general.

          This means that the postmodern reorientation of liberal political philosophy entails much more than a mere doctrinal shift. It entails a reorientation and reconstruction of citizenship and of the liberal democratic political sphere as such. To the extent that this reconstruction actually occurs, then, the normative standpoint of citizenship will come to be lived differently. It will come to be lived as a standpoint that is culturally constructed (i.e., contingent and culturally particularistic) and that pertains to only a part and not the whole of life.

Toward a de-totalized conception of citizenship

          It is above all at this point -- i.e., when the postmodern reorientation in liberal political philosophy is viewed concretely at the level of its impact on everyday life -- that specific problems of intelligibility arise. If the role of philosophical reflection as a component of civic culture is in part to provide resources for rendering intelligible to citizens the normative standpoint of citizenship, then postmodern liberal political philosophy must make it clear to citizens precisely what it means, precisely what difference it makes, to experience citizenship as culturally constructed and as pertaining only to a limited part of life.

          It is the partiality or -- for lack of a better term -- the non-totalistic character of citizenship, that is particularly problematic. As we have seen, modernist metaphysical liberalism represented citizenship as a comprehensive or totalizing standpoint. The totalizing character of metaphysical liberalism was shaped by the totalizing character of modernist Enlightenment culture in general. Modernist Enlightenment culture generated that totalizing perspective we have come to call the "scientific world view." Modernist liberal political theory, as a component of Enlightenment culture, became an agent of the scientific world view. Its self-appointed task of "legitimating" liberal democracy really amounted to a reading of liberal democratic moral ideals in terms of the assumptions proper to a totalizing scientific naturalism.

          For this reason, in the characteristically modernist conflict between the opposing totalizing world views of science and religion, liberalism has generally been seen not only as friendly to the claims of scientific rationalism, but even as its political expression and embodiment. As represented by modernist metaphysical liberalism, liberal moral ideals thus have often seemed to be part and parcel of a totalizing world view that was not only in competition with other totalizing cultural world views, but also actively hostile to religious world views in particular.

          If this is true, then we know roughly what it means to say that, under the regime of modernist civic culture, citizenship and the liberal democratic political sphere in general were experienced as elements of a comprehensive or totalizing world view. Liberal moral values often seemed to promote if not require a process of cultural secularization -- a process in which religious communities, in order to remain civicly respectable, are pressured to "liberalize" their beliefs by making them logically compatible with the scientific world view.

          If this sort of conflict is entailed in a comprehensive or totalizing interpretation of citizenship and liberal moral ideals, then the impact of -- once again, for lack of a better term -- a de-totalizing interpretation of those ideals would be to eliminate the possibility of any such conflict. To say that liberalism is not a comprehensive doctrine, but a doctrine pertaining only to part of life is to say that citizenship, liberal moral ideals and the liberal democratic political sphere in general do not and should not entail, promote, or require any particular totalizing world view at all.

          If we are indeed to be affected by the postmodern reorientation of liberal political philosophy and thereby experience the reconstruction of our own understanding and practice of citizenship, then we must learn to draw new lines that distinguish very clearly between the partial civic identities and perspectives proper to the liberal democratic public sphere and the comprehensive communitarian identities and totalizing cultural perspectives proper to nonpolitical life..

          How and where should those new lines must be drawn? What might a non-totalistic and de-totalizing liberalism, civic identity, and public sphere look like? One way to address these questions and thereby to set at least part of the agenda for post-metaphysical liberal political philosophy is by taking a clue from traditional rhetorical analysis. A political or rhetorical conception of liberal political philosophy views it as a discursive component of civic culture, addressed to citizens for the purpose of rendering intelligible and motivating development of civic capacities and attitudes.

          Accordingly, we may examine and describe the character of a post-metaphysical form of liberal political philosophy with respect to any of the relational standpoints proper to the structure of the rhetorical situation -- e.g., the address itself, its general definition of the subject matter, its addressors, its addressees, its general occasion or proper context, its intended effect, and so on. For example, we might ask about the self-understanding and rhetorical self-definition proper to a detotalized/de-totalizing conception of liberal political philosophy or we might ask about the way in which the boundaries of the liberal democratic public sphere might be redrawn by such a de-totalizing liberalism. These and other analogous lines of inquiry are bound to open entirely new horizons in liberal political philosophy.

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1&2 John Rawls, "The Priority of Right and Ideas of the Good," Philosophy and Public Affairs 17 (1988), p. 252

  

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