Reconstructing Philosophy
Philosophy and Civil Society

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Theme: Whether and to what extent Aristotelian and Socratic styles of classical political philosophy may furnish models for the postmodern reconstruction of liberalism
ESSAY 2: The Retrieval of Classical Models of Practical Philosophy
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To the extent that classical political philosophy presupposed in its audience a shared world view and conception of the good, it was governed by an agenda and addressed issues quite unlike those proper to liberal political philosophy.
















 

 

 

 

 

 






 

 

 

 

 



To the extent that, in its discursive self-understanding, classical Greek political philosophy defined itself in terms of rhetorical cognitive categories, then it may indeed offer some guidance for the project of inventing a de-totalized version of liberal political doctrine.












 

 

 

 

 

 










The task of Aristotelian political philosophy was not to provide a body of truths that would perhaps render the prudential insight and deliberative skills of the citizen-ruler superfluous, but rather to offer resources for sharpening that insight and making those skills more effective.



















 

 

 

 









The intended effect of Socratic refutation was to move citizens toward an awareness of the distinction between the moral criteria appropriate for public life and the particularistic moral criteria applied in family and tribal contexts.




























 

 

 

 

 




 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 





In practice, Socratic refutation was a form of civic therapy.

 
Greek political philosophy and the postmodern reconstruction of liberalism

          In general, a form of liberal political philosophy that is comfortable with rhetorical modes of analysis, that understands and represents itself as an effort to persuade a particular audience at a particular time with a certain intention, is likely to offer a version of liberal doctrine that won't be mistaken for a global metaphysical vision of the nature of things -- which is to say, it will be likely to offer a de-totalized and de-totalizing version of liberalism.

          This tells us something about the general form or style of a postmodern version of liberal political philosophy. It tells us that a de-totalized post-metaphysical version of liberal doctrine will not present itself as a demonstration of eternal truth. But this does not answer the more specific question of what sort of tasks or types of inquiry in particular should be taken on by a de-totalized version of liberal doctrine.

          Can classical political philosophy provide models for post-metaphysical de-totalized versions of liberalism? I would say yes, provided we observe all the necessary caveats. Without any question, classical political philosophy of all styles was grounded in a non-liberal conception of republican political association. Specifically liberal democratic forms of political association are distinguished by their presumption that citizens do and perhaps should disagree on the question of the ultimate meaning and purpose of life. Liberal democracy assumes that citizens are members of diverse ethnic, class, and religious communities and that each such community is defined by its adherence to a conception of the good life different from and often in conflict with those of other communities.

          This is the assumption that is missing in classical forms of political philosophy. Classical Greek philosophy in general was part of a cultural project that aimed at the ethnic consolidation and political unification of Greek-speaking peoples. It sought to articulate a perspective that could provide a cultural common ground for all Hellenes, one strong enough to overcome the divisive particularism of local religious and tribal loyalties. As such, classical Greek philosophy in general embodied and expressed a totalizing cultural standpoint, a particularistic cultural world view. However fragmented the Greek world may have been, Greek philosophy addressed audiences that could be expected to speak a shared primary moral language.

          Thus, to the extent that classical political philosophy in all its various styles presupposed in its audience a shared world view and conception of the good, it was governed by an agenda and addressed issues quite unlike those proper to liberal political philosophy. To that extent, classical political philosophy does not have much to offer the project of reconstructing liberal doctrine. But that is not the whole story.

          Greek philosophy, in drawing the cognitive map through which it defined itself and distinguished itself from its main political and educational rival, Greek rhetoric, also made some use of rhetorical categories and modes of analysis. If it is true that rhetorical categories and modes of analysis embody in themselves a de-totalizing understanding of political discourse, then, to the extent that Greek political philosophy made use of them, we may after all find some styles of Greek political philosophy useful as models for a de-totalized form of liberalism.

Greek practical philosophy and the categories of rhetoric

          Rhetorical conceptions of discourse and knowledge influenced the cognitive map drawn by Greek philosophy wherever Greek philosophers made a sharp distinction between theoretical and practical cognitive realms.

          Aristotle is canonical in this respect. Aristotle distinguished practical from theoretical philosophy in terms of both subject matter and method. Invariability and necessary existence identify the subject matter of theoretical knowledge. Knowledge of what exists invariably and necessarily is gained by demonstration. On the other hand, variability, particularity, and contingency identify the subject matter of practical knowledge. Knowledge of such subject matter is gained not by demonstration, but by experience combined with good judgment.

          Ethics and politics are fields of practical philosophy. A person who possesses knowledge in these fields is not someone who can construct proofs, but rather someone who deliberates well about particular cases -- i.e., someone whose deliberation leads to happy results. What can philosophy contribute to a development of the capacity to deliberate well?

          While philosophy is master in the cognitive realm of pure theory, philosophy has a lesser contribution to make in the fields of ethics and politics. In these fields, experience and skills in deliberation are paramount. Philosophy can provide a vocabulary and a moral grammar that can make deliberation more effective. But knowledge in these fields is ultimately of the particular case and, of the particular case, there can be no certain, final, or complete knowledge.

          The field of practical knowledge is a field in which pistis or true belief, as opposed to episteme, constitutes the maximum goal. At the conclusion of deliberation, i.e., at the moment of ethical and political decision, it is impossible to know with certainty whether the particular case has been judged rightly. Only time can tell that and never with finality. The final state reached in deliberation is thus a state of being persuaded. Ethical and political deliberation thus calls into play the cognitive categories proper to rhetoric.

          Thus, to the extent that classical Greek political philosophy was determined in its content by the totalizing world view of a particularistic ethnic culture, it serves poorly as model for a de-totalized version of liberalism. On the other hand, to the extent that, in its discursive self-understanding, classical Greek political philosophy defined itself in terms of rhetorical cognitive categories -- i.e., to the extent that it defined itself as belonging to the sphere of practical as opposed to theoretical knowledge, then it may indeed offer some guidance for the project of inventing a de-totalized version of liberal political doctrine.

          Just as it is useful, for present purposes, to categorize modernist liberal political theory into two general types -- i.e., the Lockean and Kantian varieties, it is useful to categorize classical political philosophy into three general types. I will call these three types (in honor of their most notable practitioners) the Socratic, Platonic, and Aristotelian varieties. Of these three, the Platonic style of classical political philosophy has the least to offer our contemporary project. Plato, at least the Plato of The Republic, seemed bent upon obliterating the distinction between the cognitive domains of theory and practice. However, this is not true of Socratic and Aristotelian versions of Greek political philosophy. These two, if any, types of classical political philosophy might offer models for a de-totalized version of liberal doctrine.

Aristotelian political philosophy as a component of Greek civic culture

          Consider first what we might characterize as the Aristotelian version of classical political philosophy. The role of the Aristotelian political philosopher was to provide a vocabulary and a moral grammar for the language game of political decision-making. As we have noted, in the sphere of practical knowledge, the "knower" is the person who has the capacity to deliberate rightly about particular cases. In the case of Greek republican politics, the paradigm of the decision-maker was the statesman, the citizen-ruler.

          Aristotelian political philosophy therefore adopted the standpoint of the citizen-ruler and sought to provide the moral perspectives and the linguistic resources that could generate prudential insight and sharpen skills required for political deliberation. Its characteristic task was the classification and evaluation of constitutions. The standard applied in the evaluation of constitutions and laws was the standard that a wise citizen-ruler would naturally adopt -- i.e., the best possible constitution for a particular people, living under specific conditions, with a particular history, culture, population mix, temperament, and so on. It was the task of the insightful citizen-ruler to assess these traits in any specific case and to construct the constitution dictated by that assessment.

          If the citizen-ruler (or assembly of citizen-rulers) judged rightly in assessing these traits and selected the appropriate laws, then the people subject to those laws would prosper in the long run (as measured by Greek ethnic standards of prosperity and happiness ideals). The political philosopher as philosopher could not take credit for the prudential insight exercised by wise citizen-rulers. The role of the political philosopher was to provide a scheme of constitutional categories, to clarify the criteria to be applied in the process of assessing particular cases and perhaps to examine particular cases of political decision-making considered by most to have been successful.

          Thus, while Aristotelian political philosophy, in its vocabulary and moral grammar, did indeed reflect the particularistic global life ideals proper to the totalizing ethnic world view of the Greeks, it did not define its cognitive task as the formulation of a totalizing theory demonstrating that those life ideals are mandated by the universal nature of human political association. While Aristotelian political philosophy was definitely a component of a totalizing cultural world view, it defined its own function in practical political terms. Its task was not to provide a body of truths that would perhaps render the prudential insight and deliberative skills of the citizen-ruler superfluous, but rather to offer resources for sharpening that insight and making those skills more effective.

          Thus, Aristotelian political philosophy, in identifying itself strictly as a form of practical reflection as opposed to theoretical cognition, i.e., as belonging to the cognitive domain of pistis as opposed to episteme, viewed itself more or less self-consciously as a component of what I would call Greek republican civic culture. The doctrine identified with Aristotelian political philosophy was a doctrine shaped by a clear definition of the rhetorical situation it addressed, the rhetorical standpoint it assumed and the rhetorical effects it sought to achieve. Understood in this way, the Aristotelian political philosophy might serve as one model for a de-totalized and de-totalizing conception of liberal doctrine.

Socratic political philosophy as a project of civic education

          The Socratic style of classical Greek political philosophy might offer a second model. The Aristotelian model of political philosophy took as its defining task the working out of a vocabulary for the classification and evaluation of constitutions. In performing this function, it adopted the standpoint of the citizen-ruler and regarded the field of political decision-making, as it were, from above -- i.e., it presupposed in its audience a capacity to adopt the standpoint of the citizen-ruler, a capacity to adopt the normative standpoint of republican citizenship.

          The Socratic style of classical political philosophy regarded the field of political decision-making, the republican public sphere, from a different point of view. It offered, so to speak, a view from below. It began with the assumption that its audience was still in the process of developing the linguistic and moral capacities proper to republican citizenship. The Socratic style of political philosophy took as its defining task the design and practice of a set of educational procedures that could promote the development of civic capacities. The Socratic style of political philosophy, in short, characteristically sought to provide resources for a certain form of civic education.

          Socrates himself, it seems, simply pursued the practice of civic education and left it to others to reflect on it and codify its procedures. His practice was to model for his students a certain kind of dialectical self-examination. That practice consisted in the public interrogation of his fellow citizens regarding the standards that they actually applied in making moral and political judgments. The assumption underlying this practice was that citizens typically are inadequately reflective and self-critical about the criteria they bring to bear in political decision-making. Without examination, those criteria may well often turn out to be derived from ranking systems and virtue concepts inappropriate to the public sphere.

          Even in a relatively homogeneous cultural environment such as fifth-century Athens, the most basic and immediate loyalties of citizens were determined by membership in particularistic tribal, village, and religious communities. These communities provided Athenians with their primary moral vocabularies. Athenian citizens, given their linguistic and cultural homogeneity, used the same set of evaluational terms, the same words of moral attribution, in both private and public life. It was to be expected, therefore, that most citizens, when they entered the public sphere, brought with them their usual criteria for applying those evaluational terms -- criteria shaped by family and village contexts and so criteria inappropriate to the field of political decision-making.

          The Socratic versions of Greek political philosophy addressed the issues raised by this linguistic or terminological importation into the public sphere of moral criteria drawn particularistic cultural contexts. The Socratic antidote to this misapplication of moral criteria was to teach citizens to distinguish clearly between evaluational words they used in making moral judgments and the actual standards they were applying in using those words. His procedure of civic education was to ask citizens to define the words they used in the attribution of virtue and vice and in the expression of praise and blame.

          A primary moral vocabulary in family and village contexts is typically used as a means of generating local solidarity and shaping the behavior of others. In those contexts, the use of moral terms is taught by example, by reference to standard behaviors and model actions that embody local ranking systems. Accordingly, a citizen's usual response to a Socratic request for a definition of concepts such as justice, courage, or piety was to give an example of a just, courageous, or pious action. The examples offered usually reflected the specialized concerns and characteristic perspectives of one or another particular tribal or occupational group.

          Thus, the businessman Cephalus, in The Republic, defines justice in terms of honest dealings and paying one's debts. Cephalus, of course, was not wrong in believing that it is just to deal honestly and to pay one's debts. He was wrong only in defining the general term "justice" in terms of a standard drawn from commerce. The educational practice of Socrates was to refute all definitions that merely pointed to particular examples of moral conduct or that reflected the restricted moral vocabularies of particular cultural communities.

          In the public sphere, when moral terms are understood and applied in accordance with criteria reflective of particularistic cultural ranking systems, they are misapplied. Moral judgment then becomes a means for imposing the particularistic interests and perspectives of one group or faction on the civic community as a whole. In civic discourse, a more capacious moral language is required, one that allows for the application of moral criteria consistent with a recognition of the equality of fellow citizens who have otherwise conflicting family, tribal and religious affiliations.

          The intended effect of Socratic refutation was to move citizens toward an awareness of the distinction between the moral criteria appropriate for public life and the particularistic moral criteria applied in family and tribal contexts. In learning to make this distinction, citizens learned to use their primary moral vocabularies with a certain ironic or critical distance. Socrates, as teacher, dialogically embodied this ironic distance. His rhetorical posture in the interrogation was that of a person who knew only that he did not know the answer to the question he posed to others -- i.e., that he did not possess a set of moral criteria perfectly untainted by particularistic cultural content.

          A capacity to speak the secondary moral language of citizenship actually consists in the capacity to apply the descriptions licensed by a primary moral language with a certain tropological detachment. Socratic refutation, as a form of civic education, was a procedure designed to produce that capacity.

          As in the case of Aristotelian political philosophy, we must keep in mind that Socratic political philosophy too reflected the totalizing cultural project of Greek philosophy in general. That project aimed at the cultural consolidation and the political unification of all Hellenic peoples. It required the criticism of all the cultural sources of political conflict and division -- above all, the local religious cults that intensified divisive tribal and territorial allegiances. Greek philosophy, like its main rival, rhetorical education, sought to provide a cultural common ground supportive of pan-Hellenic ethnic identity.

          Socratic political philosophy, as one expression of this general cultural project, worked with a conception of republican citizenship that conceived of citizenship as an element of a comprehensive ethnic way of life. The Socratic practice of civic education reflected this global conception of citizenship. The Socratic procedure of asking for universal definitions of moral terms could serve the ends of civic education only as long as Greek audiences found it plausible to believe that a right answer was possible -- i.e., that ethnic Greek culture was sufficiently homogeneous to allow achievement of a consensus regarding the definition of basic moral terms. Rhetorical education tended to generate a skepticism about the possibility of giving right answers to the sort of questions posed by Socrates and his followers, a skepticism that undermined completely the effectiveness of Socratic refutation as a form of civic education.

          While it may be true that Socratic political philosophy, like Greek philosophy in general, reflected in this way a totalizing cultural world view, it is nevertheless also true that Socratic political philosophy defined its own cognitive tasks independently of that world view. The Socratic practice of refutation as a form of civic education may indeed have gotten its credibility from the larger project of Greek philosophy and presupposed in its audience the belief that through inquiry all Greeks could indeed arrive at agreement about the definitions of basic moral terms. But Socrates himself offered no answers to the questions he asked others.

          In practice, Socratic refutation was a form of civic therapy. He embodied in his own rhetorical stance the standpoint he wanted his audience to reach -- the civic standpoint of tropological detachment from all particularistic moral vocabularies and a sensitivity to the restricted scope of those vocabularies when used in civic discourse. The goal of Socratic political philosophy was not to arrive at a theoretical knowledge of the nature of civic justice, but rather to produce in citizens the moral insight necessary to act justly.

          In this respect, Socrates had more in common with Protagoras than he did with Plato. The specifically cognitive task of Socratic political philosophy fit comfortably within the cognitive domain of Aristotelian practical reflection and within the de-totalized perspectives of rhetoric. To the extent this is true, Socratic political philosophy might provide a second model for a de-totalized and de-totalizing conception of liberal doctrine.

The uses of Greek models of political philosophy

          What sort of use could be made of Aristotelian and Socratic models of political philosophy in the postmodern reconstruction of liberal political philosophy?

          This reconstruction involves a shift from a metaphysical to a political or rhetorical conception of liberal doctrine. A rhetorical conception of liberal doctrine defines liberal doctrine explicitly as a component of liberal democratic civic culture. As a component of civic culture, liberal doctrine must define its cognitive task using rhetorical categories. Civic culture is always a countervailing culture. It is addressed to citizens who are adherents of comprehensive doctrines or totalizing cultural world views. The doctrinal, narrative, and representational resources of any civic culture serve to render intelligible to citizens the norms proper to liberal democratic citizenship and to motivate them to internalize those norms.

          As a component of civic culture, liberal doctrine must define its cognitive tasks in terms of this basic rhetorical situation. Our initial question was how specifically these cognitive tasks of a political or rhetorical liberalism might be defined. It is in answer to this question that I briefly considered what I have called the Aristotelian and Socratic models of classical political philosophy. To the extent that both of these forms of political philosophy identified as its cognitive domain the realm of practice as opposed to theory, pistis as opposed to episteme, both can usefully be represented as components of Greek republican civic culture.

          Aristotelian and Socratic forms of political philosophy performed different tasks within that civic culture. Aristotelian political philosophy addressed citizen-rulers and provided concepts and vocabulary for the evaluation of constitutions and laws. Socratic political philosophy offered vocabulary and procedures for civic education. It is in the definitions of their respective cognitive tasks that these two forms of classical political philosophy might serve as models in the postmodern reconstruction of liberalism.

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