Philosophy and Civil Society

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Theme: How Rawls's project of political reflection and enlightenment is captured by the rhetoric of modernist philosophy and becomes an exercise in quasi-transcendental philosophy.
Review: Political Liberalism by John Rawls (1)
Rawls's Strangely Apolitical Political Liberalism








The rhetorical imperatives of modernist philosophy required any discourse claiming cognitive status to be as rhetorically indeterminate as possible.





















Rawls continues to speak as though the process of adopting basic rules for social cooperation is a monological process of conceptual derivation rather than a political activity aimed at achieving consensus among diverse and conflicting social, economical, and cultural groups.








Rawls's continuing commitment to the anti-rhetorical ideals of modernist philosophical discourse prevents him from explicitly assuming the role and voice proper to the project of public enlightenment.








Rawls's question about the possibility of a pluralistic democratic society is not one about how democratic pluralism is possible in general, but about whether it is a possibility for us in our present historical situation.

Rhetorical indeterminacy as the mandatory style of true cognition

          Consider the rhetorical indeterminacy that characterizes Rawls's post-metaphysical thinking and writing. Any speech or discourse is rhetorically indeterminate when its form and content offer no clear definition of the rhetorical situation to which it is addressed -- i.e., offer no clear definition of its intended audience, its occasion, or the role adopted by the speaker or writer.

          Speaking and writing are communicative actions. Language has a pragmatic or what Austin called an illocutionary dimension. Linguistic communication is not merely a matter of transmitting meanings from one mind to another. Speech achieves its communicative effects through its embeddedness in social and institutional contexts. Speech coordinates interaction within those contexts and does so more effectively to the degree that particular speech acts make explicit, in one way or another, the sort of interactional effects their speakers intend.

          When a speaker intends a particular utterance, say, as a request, the standard way of making the pragmatic or illocutionary dimension of that utterance as explicit as possible is by labeling the utterance accordingly: "I hereby request that. . ." Speech or writing in which the illocutionary or pragmatic dimension of its content is sufficiently clear I call rhetorically determinate speech or discourse. Of course, in the case of most speech or writing, various features of context, style, and medium are sufficient to make the content rhetorically determinate.

          Discourse governed by the rhetorical imperatives of modernist philosophy -- the anti-rhetorical rhetoric of pure theory -- represents a somewhat paradoxical instance of this. The rhetorical imperatives of modernist philosophy required any discourse claiming genuine cognitive status to be as rhetorically indeterminate as possible. Modernist philosophy sought to distinguish itself, as the master cognitive or theoretical discourse, from other forms of literature whose success was measured by the capacity to affect audiences in certain ways. Literature governed by the intention to move or affect a specific audience in specific ways cannot be indifferent to the pragmatic or illocutionary dimension of speech. Such literature cannot afford to strip itself of any internalized reference to the rhetorical situation it addresses.

          Modernist philosophy, on the other hand, claimed a superior cognitive status. As pure theory, philosophy claimed to be governed only by the intention of stating the timeless and audience-independent truth about a timeless and audience-independent reality. For any discourse to qualify as philosophical discourse, therefore, it had to exhibit a certain style, a style characterized above all by an absence of rhetorical adornment and an absence of any internalized reference to any specific rhetorical situation.

          Thus, paradoxically, modernist philosophical discourse defined and identified itself rhetorically by its own striving for rhetorical indeterminacy. I think most readers of Rawls's A Theory of Justice (TJ) would agree that the book was characterized by this sort of rhetorically indeterminate style. Whatever its message, stylistically it clearly aspired to meet the anti-rhetorical standards proper to purely theoretical discourse in the modernist sense. Even if the book's content might be interpreted non-metaphysically, i.e., as offering something approaching a political as opposed to a metaphysical conception of justice, its style was metaphysical through and through.

Political advocate or Kantian constructivist?

          Rawls's Political Liberalism (PL) is characterized by the same rhetorical indeterminacy. But in this case the incongruity between the book's relatively post-metaphysical content and its quasi-metaphysical style is far more noticeable. It is as though Rawls, while rejecting modernist liberal political philosophy's claims to cognitive essentialism and universalism, nevertheless continues to speak in the voice of pure theory.

          For example, in PL, it seems indisputable that Rawls's project, at least in part, is one of political advocacy. He speaks in the voice of an active citizen who has entered the public sphere to propose for the consideration of his fellow citizens the conception of social justice he calls justice as fairness. In PL, Rawls acknowledges that his proposed conception of justice is not to be measured by the cognitive standards of truth and falsity. He claims only that it is a reasonable conception, one that deserves to win the support of reasonable citizens.

          Further, he seems to understand clearly that justice as fairness is only one of perhaps several other conceptions of justice that reasonable citizens might consider endorsing -- rival conceptions that are equally consistent with a political interpretation of liberal doctrine and can claim equally to be drawn from ideas prevalent today in the public culture of constitutional democracies.

          The most controversial element of Rawls's proposed conception of justice is the so-called difference principle. This principle states roughly that, to be considered just, social and economic inequalities or differences in a liberal democratic society must provide greatest benefit to the least advantaged of its members. Needless to say, the difference principle, viewed by some critics as amounting to an open invitation to unlimited statist intervention in the marketplace, conflicts with the moral intuitions of many reasonable citizens today.

          As a political advocate, then, as an active citizen proposing a set of basic rules for social cooperation, Rawls continues to face a very tough sell. But, in PL, does Rawls actually speak in the voice of a political advocate? Does he define and directly address the issues raised by the controversy? Does he present arguments that really engage, even at the most general and abstract levels, the sort of objections that might be raised against justice as fairness? Is there any evidence that he even understands his proposed conception as a practical political matter at all -- i.e., as a proposal that might at some point have to be worked out concretely in actual political activity, in actual dialogue with the various warring factions of some particular flesh and blood liberal democracy? Hardly.

          What we find instead in PL is the voice of a Kantian constructivist, concerned with the "procedure of construction" by which a political conception of justice is put together and offering a "family of conceptions" to be used in that procedure. But the outcome of a procedure of construction is rhetorically very different from a proposal for a conception of justice. A Kantian constructivist is rhetorically very different in persona from an advocate of a controversial political agenda.

          It is almost as if Rawls really believed that, by showing justice as fairness to be the outcome of a procedure of conceptual construction, the opponents of the difference principle would abandon their opposition and all reasonable citizens would embrace it. It is almost as if Rawls really believed that partisans of rival conceptions of justice could not present their own proposed conceptions as the products of a similar procedures of construction based upon their own families of favored conceptions drawn from the public culture of contemporary liberal democracies.

          Thus, while it seems to me indisputable that Rawls, in the aftermath of his rhetorical turn, must view his role at least partially as that of a political advocate seeking to convince fellow citizens of the superior reasonableness of his proposed conception of justice, he nevertheless, in PL, refuses to adopt the appropriate rhetorical voice and persona. He continues to speak as though the process of adopting basic rules for social cooperation is a monological process of conceptual derivation rather than an actual political process aimed at achieving an overlapping consensus among diverse and conflicting social, economic, and cultural groups.

          Rawls's abstract and rhetorically indeterminate attitude toward the subject matter is expressed even grammatically. PL is written in a peculiar style, with abstract nouns predominating as agents and the passive voice given an overwhelming presence. Justice as fairness "adopts" an idea of social cooperation, a family of conceptions has been "worked up," citizens "are viewed" as free and equal, ideas "are introduced," a principle of justice "is constructed." Given this predominance of the passive voice and, when the active voice appears at all, the predominance of abstract nouns as agents, the reader of PL not only loses any sense of political advocacy, but any sense of authorial agency as well.

          It seems that political conceptions simply unfold, that principles construct themselves and that the reader is little more than a witness to these magical and anonymous conceptual processes. I believe that this is more than a mere stylistic quirk. I believe that Rawls's refusal to assume explicitly the rhetorical voice and role proper to political advocacy is itself a rhetorical appeal, an effort to retain the cultural authority of the modernist cognitive ideal of pure theory while at the same time denying that ideal conceptually. It is ironic that, in PL, the anti-rhetorical cognitive ideal of the Enlightenment lives on today as little more than a rhetorical trick.

A project of public enlightenment without reference to the public

          Whether or not Rawls is willing to adopt fully the voice and persona of political advocacy, then, his project in its post-metaphysical phase must in part be conceived of in those terms. But, in PL, that aspect of his project takes a back seat to another aspect.

          If Rawls as an advocate of the principles of justice as fairness assumes at least implicitly the role of active citizen, in PL Rawls pursues a related but nevertheless, in rhetorical terms, quite different sort of project, one that in fact places him in a quite different role with respect to his audience. In PL, Rawls speaks primarily as a reflective citizen whose aim is to offer his fellow citizens new and better ways to think about liberal democratic citizenship and about the ideas and ideals of liberal democracy. In other words, PL is much less an attempt to sell justice as fairness than it is a contribution to civic culture.

          Of course, it is not as if these two different rhetorical projects are totally unrelated. After all, Rawls's analysis of the nature of liberal democratic ideals and citizenship can generate topoi to be drawn upon in the invention of arguments advocating public acceptance of his favored conception of justice. Nevertheless, the criteria of success proper to these two rhetorical projects are quite different. Rawls's reflections on the nature of liberal democratic citizenship and the epistemological status of liberal doctrine may well serve to enlighten the self-understanding and the political practice of his fellow citizens even if citizens unanimously disagree with the conception of justice that he might use those reflections in the context of advocacy to support.

          Once again, however, Rawls's continuing commitment to the anti-rhetorical ideals of modernist philosophical discourse prevents him from explicitly assuming the role and voice proper to the project of public enlightenment. He seems to conflate completely the two very different projects of political advocacy and public enlightenment -- or, rather, to remain entirely innocent of any such distinction and to view the entire "family of conceptions" that he offers as belonging to one single project aimed at the conceptual construction of a set of principles of justice. Unfortunately, this general obliviousness to the rhetorical or illocutionary dimension of his inquiry places limits on the contribution that he makes toward the reconstruction of contemporary liberal democratic civic culture.

          This unmindfulness of the illocutionary dimension of his inquiry is not complete. He does at times seem to have some limited sense of the rhetorical distinctness of his project of public enlightenment. He begins PL with a reference to the rhetorical occasion of his inquiry. He points out that basic reassessments and reinterpretations of liberal democratic ideas and ideals are necessary when we are faced with deep conflicts of cultural and political values.

          Indeed, he identifies one specific conflict to which his reflections are addressed -- the conflict within modernist liberalism between partisans of the "liberties of the moderns" and partisans of the "liberties of the ancients" -- the conflict between conceptions of liberal democratic citizenship that give precedence to the doctrine of negative freedom ( today identified largely with so-called "conservatives") and those that give precedence to the doctrine of positive freedom (today identified largely with so-called "liberals").

          The conflict Rawls identifies has been and continues to be indeed a real and fundamental one. But even more significant today is a second cultural conflict that has become interwoven with the first -- namely, the conflict between the so-called culturally "progressive" and the so-called culturally "orthodox." These two conflicts together in their complex relationship to one another seem to constitute the rhetorical occasion that Rawls addresses in his role as reflective citizen or as critic and reformer of civic culture.

          To the extent that Rawls in PL addresses the first conflict at all -- i.e., the conflict between the partisans of "negative freedom" and the partisans of "positive freedom," he seems to view these opposed conceptions of freedom only as pure theories, as elements of comprehensive or metaphysical versions of liberal doctrine associated with Locke or Mill, in the case of negative freedom, and Rousseau or Kant, in the case of positive freedom.

          Rawls's strategy with respect to these two conflicting metaphysical conceptions of freedom is basically to distance himself from both and to insist that liberalism must be understood to be a political doctrine, a doctrine that remains neutral with respect to all metaphysical questions about the essence of human liberty. But as a response addressed to the issues raised for civic culture by these two opposed conceptions of liberty, Rawls's response is inadequate. By viewing these two opposed conceptions of liberty merely as philosophical theories, without regard to the role they played in modernist liberal civic culture, Rawls fails to grasp their full significance for his project of liberal reconstruction.

A "political" liberalism terminally in the grip of Kant

          The conception of freedom as negative freedom provided the basis of what I have called the civic ethics of authenticity. The conception of freedom as positive freedom provided the basis of what I have called the civic ethics of autonomy. In modernist civic culture, both conceptions of freedom, whatever other ideological roles they played as philosophical "theories," provided important motivational resources for the cultivation of civic identities and values.

          As moral ideals, they were not merely theories adhered to by one particular community among others -- say, the community of metaphysical liberals. Rather, they were addressed to members of all particularistic cultural communities equally and provided countervailing weight in support of civic values against the pull of particularistic world views. The task of any critic or would-be reformer of contemporary civic culture is at least to point in the direction of possible new motivational resources to replace those formerly provided by the ethical ideals of authenticity and autonomy. Rawls not only fails to do this, but, in his role of reflective citizen, fails even to grasp the very issue itself.

          To the extent that Rawls in PL addresses the second conflict at all -- i.e., the ongoing culture war between the "progressive" and the "orthodox," he does so only tangentially, even though this conflict seems to be the one to which his reconstruction of liberal doctrine is most relevant.

          Rawls begins PL with a statement of the fundamental question to which the book is addressed: "How is it possible for there to exist over time a just and stable society of free and equal citizens, who remain profoundly divided by reasonable religious, philosophical and moral doctrines?" His strategy, as he puts it, is to apply the principle of toleration to philosophy itself.

          This suggests that philosophy was previously not subject to this principle, that modernist liberal political philosophy conceived of liberal doctrine as dogmatically presupposing the truth of now controversial metaphysical theories. These theories are now controversial because affirmation of their claims to truth seems to require rejection of religious beliefs and moral conceptions dear to the hearts of many citizens.

          This is the sort of complaint against liberalism that the culturally "orthodox" have long made against the culturally "progressive" or "liberal." Implied in Rawls's attempt to apply the principle of toleration to philosophy itself, then, seems to be a recognition of and a response to this conflict between the "progressive" and the "orthodox." Rawls's reconstruction of liberalism aims at driving a wedge between liberal moral ideals and controversial modernist metaphysical commitments, thereby removing this source of political conflict and promoting the development of a new form of liberal civic culture more hospitable to culture difference. This is the import of what I have called Rawls's rhetorical turn.

          Unfortunately, Rawls's reluctance to embrace fully the implications of his application of the principle of toleration to philosophy itself limits his success in achieving this goal. Even though PL seems to be inspired by the project of recasting liberal doctrine in such a way as to make it compatible with a real cultural pluralism, throughout the book Rawls adopts the voice and persona, not of a reflective citizen making a contribution to the reconstruction of liberal civic culture, but rather of a Kantian constructivist concerned with setting forth a rhetorically undifferentiated "family of conceptions" from which the principles of justice as fairness can be derived.

          In fact, Rawls's formulation of the fundamental question the book addresses is stated in such a way that it invites a Kantian misinterpretation of the project. When Rawls asks "how is it possible" for there to exist a genuinely pluralistic liberal democratic society, this could be construed as some sort of quasi-transcendental question about the conditions of such a society's possibility -- i.e., about the ideas, the inevitable presuppositions, we must accept if such a society is to be established or fully realized. In fact, where Rawls continues to identify his approach as a form of "Kantian constructivism," he remains largely under the influence of this sort of misinterpretation of his project.

          But the question about the possibility of a pluralistic liberal democratic society should be interpreted in a very different way. The question is not one about how democratic pluralism is possible in general, but about whether it is possible for us -- i.e., whether it is possible for us as twenty-first-century Americans or, at most, for us as citizens of existing North Atlantic liberal democracies to reconceive and reconstitute liberal democratic civil society and civic culture in such as way as to make the civic ideals of freedom and equality compatible with a strong affirmation of cultural pluralism.

          When the question of the possibility of liberal democratic pluralism is understood in this way, as a matter requiring public reflection in very specific historical and cultural circumstances, then all the subtle methodological questions surrounding the adaptation of Kantian constructivism to the "construction" of a political conception of justice simply lose their relevance. There are places in PL where this sort of interpretation of the question does in fact shine through and momentarily brightens the otherwise rather dreary and austere Kantian construction project.

          For example, at one point Rawls properly characterizes his notion of the original position not just as a "device of representation" in a "procedure of construction," but, far more importantly, as a heuristic device, a resource for civic education, a means of public reflection and self-clarification. This is the voice that should have prevailed in PL. This is the voice that is alone consistent with Rawls's rhetorical turn, with his application of the principle of tolerance to philosophy itself.

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