Archive for John Milbank

Jeffery Stout wants democrats and believers to discover civic unity

Posted in Books with tags , , , , on 7 January 2010 by John

In his book Democracy and Tradition, Jeffery Stout tries to play peacemaker between contemporary proponents of liberalism and what Stout dubs the “new traditionalists.” I became interested in this book because I’m rather of fond of the new traditionalists. The three thinkers Stout chooses to dialogue with (Stanley Hauerwas, John Milbank, and Alasdair MacIntyre) are three of the most interesting writers I’ve read. Furthermore, Stout’s tone is constructive. From what I’ve read so far, you could disagree with Stout on every point and take something away from the book.

The goal of Stout’s project is to forge a basis for civic unity in a democratic society. Stout is sympathetic to the new traditionalists’ claim that contemporary American civic religion is “incoherent and alienating”, but doesn’t think it’s wise to base civic unity on religion (1). However, instead of viewing democracy as an empty and corrupting force, Stout views it as a broken in American society today. Stout wants to argue for a non-Rawlsian conception of democracy. He identifies two premises of modern liberal thinkers that the new traditionalists have criticized: 1) that a nation-state can be ideally neutral with respect to conceptions of the good 2) that political discourse can occur on the basis of “free public reason” (2). What Stout wants to do is argue that a true democratic philosophy need not adopt these two premises: “Rawlsian liberalism should not be seen as its official mouthpiece” (3).

Stout wants to argue that, instead of being the antithesis of tradition, “democracy…is a tradition” (3). The character of this democratic tradition is not forged from a Rawlsian agreement on the conception of justice, but rather is “more a matter of enduring attitudes, concerns, dispositions, and patterns” (3). To Stout, democracy is more than a system of government. Rather, it is an attitude and cultural phenomenon. The public deliberation required by political democracy makes it more than mere politics. The goal of political philosophy, therefore, is to cultivate this democratic project: “It is the task of public philosophy, as I understand it, ti articulate the ethical inheritance of the people for the people while subjecting it to critical scrutiny” (5).  Stout invites his readers to take the position of citizen while reading the book.

Stout envisions true democracy as able to break through the polarization of American politics today. The opposing positions adopted by new traditionalists and liberal secularists result in the “Manichean rhetoric of cultural warfare”  and since “there are many important issues that cannot be resolved solely on the basis of commonly held principles,” we need some sort of mechanism to mediate these disputes (10). The democracy method Stout proposes is “conversation.” Conversation for Stout means a willingness to try to understand another person’s perspective and premises and freely subjecting your own views to criticism.

To try to generate this democratic conversation, Stout selects Hauerwas, Milbank, and MacIntyre as his interlocutors. He does so because “they represent the tradition to which most American citizens are committed” (11). Hauerwas has often said that Stout overestimates the influence of his work and I can see why with a quote like this. If Stout’s project is truly a pragmatic political endeavor, the selection of these three thinkers is puzzling to me because I don’t think any of them (especially Milbank, who is British) are particularly influential on the practice of American Christianity. Actually, these thinkers are critical of American Christianity. All this to say – I don’t think Hauerwas, Milbank, and MacIntyre represent the “tradition to which most American citizens are committed.” While I welcome Stout’s ecumenical efforts, I don’t think by dialoguing with Hauerwas, Milbank, and MacIntyre he’ll have any particular effect on the practice of American Christianity. Stout’s insistence on a pragmatic project is problematic here.

I also think Stout underestimates the problem that secularization poses for people with religious convictions.  Stout thinks the fears of the new traditionalists are unfounded because “modern democratic reasoning is secularized, but not in a sense that rules out the expression of religious premises or the entitlement of individuals to accept religious assumptions” (11). However, Stout thinks Neuhaus’ “naked public square” is either “unacceptable or unrealistic” (11). Such a proposal requires the church to rely on coercion (unacceptable) or persuasion (unrealistic). The only place for Christian convictions in the public square is in the form of individual expression. I find such a view theologically problematic for many of the same reasons that the new traditionalists do, I suspect.


Richard Rorty loves sauerkraut pudding

Posted in Books, Evaluations, Second Paradise projects with tags , , , , , , , on 16 December 2009 by Brendan

If that sounds like a strange dish, well, Richard Rorty is a strange fellow, an Anglophone analytic philosopher of mind turned Deweyan pragmatist turned Heideggerian historicist. Now, if that sounds to you like a ridiculous combination—this is your fun fact for the post—consider that Rorty matriculated at the University of Chicago at age 14. Trained in the analytic school of Brandom, Quine, and Davidson, Rorty gradually became disillusioned with Western philosophy’s metaphysical and epistemological hubris; the first fruit borne by that frustration was Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), a meandering critique of the Lockean-Cartesian-Kantian tradition, which posits philosophy as a discipline “foundational in respect to the rest of culture because culture is the assemblage of claims to knowledge, and philosophy adjudicates such claims” (3, all citations from the 1979 edition).

At the headwaters of this project, Locke sought to provide “a ‘theory of knowledge’ based on an understanding of ‘mental processes’” (3), Descartes postulated an interior mind  “in which ‘processes’ occur,” (4) and Kant cast philosophy “as a tribunal of pure reason, upholding or denying the claims of the rest of culture” (4). Rorty positions analytic writers within this tradition “as an attempt to escape from history—an attempt to find nonhistorical conditions of any possible historical development” (9).

However, in the twentieth century, three philosophers—“Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Dewey” (4)—questioned this quest for certainty in fundamental ways, though only, observes Rorty, after painful experiences in trying to refashion and recuperate its illusory certainties. Against philosophy’s flight from history, these three thinkers offered an “historicist” message, one which grounds philosophical pursuits and truth claims in the social and cultural developments of human societies: Heidegger’s historicism is most sweeping, relying on a vast revision of the “history of philosophy,” which “lets us see the beginning of the Cartesian imagery in the Greeks and the metamorphoses of this imagery during the last three centuries” (12). Wittgenstein showed how language could be conceived of as a “game” constructed for the achievement of social pursuits—in Philosophical Explorations, he wrote, “To imagine a language is to imagine a way of life” (§19). Each of these three, argues Rorty, “set aside metaphysics and epistemology as possible disciplines”: they do not so much debunk these realms, he suggests, as simply lose interest in them (4). For them, and for Rorty himself, “The notion of ‘accurate representation’ is simply an automatic and empty compliment which we pay to those beliefs which are successful in helping us do what we want to do” (10): “true statements” are socially functional statements.

This brings us to Rorty’s thesis, which bears a rather longer quotation:

The aim of this book is to undermine the reader’s confidence in ‘the mind’ as something about which one should have a ‘philosophical’ view, in ‘knowledge’ as something about which there ought to be a ‘theory’ and which has ‘foundations,’ and in ‘philosophy’ as it has been conceived since Kant (4).

Rorty understands himself as continuing the historicist project of his three heroes, though rather in the manner of a double agent, still operating within the stifled confines of analytic philosophy, and even stealing his “particular criticisms” of that tradition “from such systematic philosophers as Sellars, Quine, Davidson, Ryle, Malcolm, Kuhn, and Putnam” (7). 

I know enough about where this book is headed to be interested in the trip, though I expect to have many a disagreement with our brilliant guide along the way. On one hand (as my title suggests), his deployment of sources is idiosyncratic: each of these three is historicist in his own way, but (perhaps, nudges my instinct) not necessarily in compatible ways. At a superficial level, consider that Heidegger considered Christianity the (quite literally) apotheosis of the mechanization at the heart of Western metaphysics, while Wittgenstein experienced a profound conversion during World War I that left him with a deep-rooted Christian faith (though how orthodox or catholic that faith was is admittedly fuzzy for me). Further, it is far from self-evident that historicism is incompatible with a certain kind of discourse about being: I am thinking here of MacIntyre (who, interestingly, was himself an analytic philosopher “converted” to a sort of Wittgensteinian historicism, though in an Aristotelian and Thomist, rather than Heideggerian, key), and more emphatically, John Milbank. In fact (contra Heidegger, whose reading of Christian history I find unimaginative at best), the very logic of the Incarnation seems to imply that a fully Christian metaphysics must in some sense be historicist, for there is no other “image of the invisible God” except this Jewish man, born of a Virgin and crucified under Pontius Pilate—of course, here I go sounding all Barthian, when a sensible person would let the analogia entis question rest for another day. 

We will surely have occasion later to discuss whether—as Rorty seems to suggest here—viewing truth as socially-constructed need commit one to abandoning the possibility of the “Truth,” of reality as such. MacIntyre argued that it did not, envisioning the possibility of one discourse’s instigating an “epistemological crisis” within a rival; Milbank argues that it does not, because of the possibility of an ecclesial community whose aesthetic splendor would overwhelm all rivals.