Philosophy and Civil Society
Rawls, in his effort to free liberalism from modernist metaphysical doctrines, remains all too faithful to those doctrines in his methods and his rhetoric.
Rawls's reluctance to adopt fully a rhetorical conception and analysis of his inquiry limits his effectiveness both as a political advocate of a particular conception of justice and as a contributor to the contemporary reconstruction of liberal democratic civic culture. But this reluctance also places limits on the scope and depth of his rethinking of classical liberal doctrines.
Under the rubric of applying the principle of toleration to philosophy itself, Rawls wishes to make liberal democracy more hospitable to cultural difference by offering an interpretation of liberal doctrine and a liberal conception of justice stripped of the truth claims and metaphysical commitments associated with modernist forms of liberal political theory. These truth claims and metaphysical commitments have often been viewed as conflicting with religious beliefs and moral ideals adhered to by members of particularistic cultural communities within liberal society. Modernist liberal political theory explained liberal political principles and institutions in terms of totalizing and universalistic philosophical systems, making it seem that embrace of those principles and institutions entailed acceptance of a specific comprehensive world view -- i.e., the world view of the Enlightenment.
In Political Liberalism (PL), Rawls wants to offer a version of liberalism that avoids any such suggestion, one that clearly identifies liberal doctrine as a set of ideas addressing only a part and not the whole of life, a set of ideas whose validity extends only as far as the living consensus that supports it. In his conception and execution of this project, Rawls has cleared the path that all postmodern liberal political philosophy must take.
My only criticism is that he himself takes that path not nearly far enough. Rawls, in his effort to free liberal principles and ideals from their embeddedness in the conceptual and ideological matrix of modernist philosophy, remains all too faithful not only to the rhetorically indeterminate style and voice of modernist philosophy, but also to attenuated versions of some of its basic metaphysical assumptions.
The fear of rhetoric and its consequences
The continuing operative presence of those modernist assumptions are nowhere more evident than in Rawls's conceptions of reason and rationality. First, fully operative in PL is a standard version of the characteristically modernist prejudice against rhetoric. "Now all ways of reasoning. . .must acknowledge certain common elements: the concept of judgment, principles of inference, and rules of evidence, and much else -- otherwise they would not be ways of reasoning but perhaps rhetoric or means of persuasion. We are concerned with reason, not simply with discourse."1
Here Rawls contrasts rhetoric with reasoning in a way completely consistent with the modernist anti-rhetorical rhetoric of pure theory. He identifies rhetoric with means of persuasion that exclude reasoning, that exclude logical judgment, principles of inference, and rules of evidence. In this sort of contrast, frequently encountered in everyday speech, rhetoric is identified only with the most blatant and crass appeals to emotion and interest for the sake of achieving impact on an audience -- i.e., rhetoric is pretty much identified with sophistry or at least salesmanship. Even rhetoric's greatest enemy, Plato, knew better than this.
Such a conception of rhetoric shows little familiarity with the traditions of classical rhetoric. For example, of the three traditional means of persuasion in Aristotelian rhetorical teaching -- logos, ethos and pathos -- logos or argumentative reason is given the greatest possible weight. Where rhetorical teaching does in fact differ from the conceptions of reason found in modernist foundationalist philosophy is in its awareness of reasoning as a dialogical activity, even when it is a silent and solitary activity.
The rhetorical tradition always viewed judgments, inferences and the critical examination of evidence as addressed to an audience, even when that audience is not present. Rawls's adoption of this characteristically modernist way of contrasting reasoning and rhetorical discourse naturally inclines him toward the acceptance of characteristically modernist monological and formalist conceptions of reason. Given this assessment of rhetoric, Rawls's reluctance to embrace fully and explicitly his own rhetorical turn is little wonder.
This inclination to conceive of reasoning and rationality in modernist terms puts definite limits on Rawls's project of rethinking liberal doctrine in non-metaphysical terms. The significance of the rhetorical turn in liberal political philosophy lies in its contribution to the intelligibility of liberal doctrine and of the moral ideal of liberal democratic citizenship. A liberal democratic civic culture must provide resources to perform two related tasks. It must provide discourses, narratives, and representations (1) that make the normative standpoint of liberal democratic citizenship intelligible to citizens and (2) that motivate citizens to cultivate civic identities and values.
Rawls's rhetorical turn, i.e., his project of reinterpreting liberalism as a political doctrine as opposed to a metaphysical doctrine, opens the way to a new understanding of the normative standpoint of citizenship, one that is far more consistent with our contemporary awareness of the indispensable role played by particularistic forms of culture in the production and support of civic identities and civic values. A rhetorical conception of reason always keeps clearly in view the cultural or dialogical dimension of rationality. It is not inclined to place critical reasoning and persuasive discourse in radical opposition to one another.
Because a rhetorical conception of reason views critical reasoning as an activity that is always culturally and historically situated, it is not inclined to view as rationally defective the particularistic cultural supports of civic values -- such as religious belief -- and it is not inclined to ignore the actual particularistic cultural processes by which civic identities are produced and reproduced. Unfortunately, largely because of Rawls's continuing attachment to modernist monological conceptions of reason, what we find in PL is the complete absence of any useful account of the ways in which civic values actually have been or can in the future be culturally produced. What is missing in PL, in other words, is the very concept of what I have called a civic culture. When Rawls refers, as he often does, to the public culture of a liberal democracy, he conceives of it as little more than a repository of ideas to be used in projects of conceptual construction.
The methodological equivalent of a metaphysical concept of reason
This lack of the very concept of an effectively countervailing civic culture places PL squarely within the tradition of modernist liberal political theory.
Modernist liberal political theory attributed to the normative standpoint of liberal democratic citizenship both an anthropological and a metaphysical priority. In different ways, both Lockean and Kantian styles of liberal theory made the standpoint of the citizen, the standpoint of free and equal individuality, appear to be the natural and essential human standpoint. Further, given the links between modernist political theory and foundationalist epistemology, both Lockean and Kantian liberals in different ways linked the normative standpoint of citizenship to the modernist principle of the autonomy of reason, viewing a capacity for autonomous rationality as the universally distinguishing mark of the human.
The result of this attribution of anthropological and metaphysical priority to civic identity and civic values was the systematic disregard of the role of particularistic cultural forms in their production. Modernist liberal political theory tended to regard the standpoint of free and equal individuality as a given. Where no evidence of the operation of this standpoint was found, modernist liberals viewed its absence as something to be explained, usually as the result of political suppression or as a sign of inferior civilization.
Rawls, in PL, perpetuates this characteristically modernist disregard of the particularistic cultural supports required for liberal democracy. Of course, Rawls, in the wake of his rhetorical turn, would reject any attribution of metaphysical priority to the normative standpoint of citizenship. But the peculiarities of his favored method of Kantian constructivism allow him to grant civic identity and civic values a certain methodological priority that has virtually the same impact.
Kant himself, the original Kantian constructivist, derived his own conception of the principle of morality from ideas that he understood to be pervasively operative in and essential to all rational beings. Kant was a metaphysical liberal. Rawls, on the other hand, in his own version of Kantian constructivism, draws the ideas he uses in his "procedure of construction" from the prevailing public culture of modern liberal democracies.
Among those ideas he finds a certain conception of personhood, conceptions of the moral powers that distinguish persons from non-persons, and conceptions of the reasonable and the rational that are associated with those powers. While Rawls makes no claim that any of these concepts are grounded in the nature of things, his "procedure of construction" allows him to treat these concepts as if they were.
In the construction of his political conception of justice, Rawls simply starts off by attributing to real flesh and blood human beings the moral and intellectual capacities specified by the conception of political personhood he has discovered in the public culture. While he is not thereby committed to any metaphysical view of human nature, he is thereby licensed by his constructivist method to treat those intellectual and moral capacities proper to political personhood simply as givens, just as if they were in fact essentially human faculties in the metaphysical sense.
So, throughout PL, reasonableness and rationality, the capacities for a sense of liberal justice and for the pursuit of a particularistic conception of the good, simply "are attributed" to citizens. Rawls does not ask how they got there. He does not ask how they can be produced or maintained. In short, Rawls's method of Kantian constructivism lends itself no less than did the methods and assumptions of modernist metaphysical liberals to the same disregard of the role of particularistic forms of culture in the production of civic identities and values.
Rawlsian reasonableness: Not enough for citizenship
Rawls's continued attachment to the methodological equivalent of modernist conceptions of rationality impedes in an additional way his effort to reconstruct liberal doctrine in non-metaphysical terms. Rawls himself traces his own distinction between the reasonable and the rational to Kant's distinction between the categorical and hypothetical imperatives and therefore to a Kantian conception of practical reason. Rawls defines reasonableness (which he correlates roughly with Kant's categorical imperative) as a capacity to propose and act in accordance with fair terms of cooperation. Rawls defines rationality (which he correlates roughly with Kant's hypothetical imperatives) as a capacity to define and act in accordance with a set of priorities governed by an overall conception of the good.
However Rawls's account of reasonableness and rationality may differ in its details from a strictly Kantian account, Rawls's general readiness to assimilate his conceptions of the reasonable and the rational -- i.e., his conceptions of the intellectual and moral capacities proper to liberal democratic citizenship -- to a Kantian conception of practical reason betrays his own project. Kantian conceptions of both theoretical and practical reason are notoriously formalist in nature. They draw a radical distinction between form and content, between the universally valid logical patterns of reasoning and the particular subject matter reasoned about. For Kant, the principles of theoretical and practical reason are applied to particular content -- representations and actions, but those principles themselves remain external to all historically conditioned content, grounded in the universal faculty of human reason.
Rawls falls into this same sort of formalism. For example, in his distinction between reasonable comprehensive doctrines (i.e., those totalizing particularistic world views and moral ideals that are judged to be consistent with a liberal social order) and unreasonable comprehensive doctrines, Rawls defines reasonable comprehensive doctrines in characteristically Kantian formalist terms. A reasonable comprehensive doctrine is one that uses both theoretical and practical reason (i.e., makes both truth claims and moral demands that are universal in logical form) and that draws upon a tradition of doctrine.
The problem with this definition of what constitutes a reasonable comprehensive doctrine is the same problem that afflicts Rawls's conception of the reasonable in general -- namely, it provides no guidance at all when applied to particular cases. Virtually any comprehensive doctrine can be construed and articulated so as to conform to the definition Rawls offers, just as, with a little ingenuity, virtually any action can be construed and described so as to conform to Kant's categorical imperative.
But that doesn't mean that every comprehensive doctrine meeting these formal requirements is actually consistent with the proposal and acceptance of fair terms of cooperation, i.e., is actually consistent with participation in a liberal social order. For example, the comprehensive doctrines held by Tibetan Buddhists or by members of the Amish sect may indeed make use of theoretical and practical reason and may therefore qualify as reasonable comprehensive doctrines using Rawls's standard. But it is easy to imagine how these doctrines may also make it very difficult for their adherents to develop the intellectual and moral capacities required for liberal democratic citizenship.
This means that reasonableness, i.e., the capacity of the citizen to act in accordance with the principles of liberal justice, cannot be properly understood as a capacity merely to act in accordance with a set of formal rules or to meet certain formal requirements. More is involved in what Rawls calls reasonableness than an exercise or application of Kantian theoretical and practical reason.
Reasonableness, the term Rawls uses to refer to the capacity for liberal democratic citizenship, is a capacity that involves transformation of content, whether the content in question be the concrete self-understanding, or identity of an individual, or the doctrines and practices specific to a particularistic cultural community. What I mean by transformation of content is this.
The citizens of a liberal democracy are first and always remain members of particular class, ethnic, and religious communities. Their identities are shaped by the ranking systems, virtue concepts, and standards of excellence transmitted by the cultural traditions embodied in those communities. The first and primary identity of any citizen is thus what I have called a communitarian identity. This is the identity that must be transformed in the process of developing a civic identity.
The normative standpoint of citizenship stands in a relationship of tension with the standpoint proper to membership in a particularistic cultural community. To achieve citizenship in the full cultural sense, a person must develop a capacity to adopt, cultivate and act from both of these opposing standpoints. The development of this capacity requires a transformation, a radical revision of the self-understanding associated with communitarian identity. It requires no less a fundamental rethinking and reinterpretation of the doctrinal content and practices proper to the cultural traditions supportive of communitarian identities.
Such transformations cannot in principle be understood as a matter of meeting the formal requirements of Kantian theoretical and practical reason. Such transformations of content are produced by the development and cultivation of linguistic and moral capacities that are not properly understood as capacities for reasoning at all. What Rawls calls reasonableness is a capacity that can in fact be produced only through the exercise of certain forms of narrative imagination and self-understanding.
The point here is that, due to his continuing methodological attachment to modernist, and specifically Kantian, conceptions of reason and rationality, Rawls can carry out his reconstruction of liberal doctrine in non-metaphysical terms only just so far. It seems that Rawls simply cannot free himself from excessively formalist and quasi-transcendental modes of thought. The project of inventing a postmodern civic culture requires a far more consistent and complete execution of the rhetorical turn than what Rawls offers us in PL.
Page last edited: 01/28/02
Copyright © 1997 - 2002
Thomas Bridges. All rights reserved.
Hosted by Interland