Philosophy in a Time of Lost Spirit:
Essays on Contemporary Theory

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ISBN: 0802042104

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Tensing the Bow
by W. James Booth

To some in these waning years of the millennium, it must seem as if the debate over liberalism has run its course. What debate could there be? It has triumphed over its rivals, morally, economically, and politically. There is no credible alternative, and even those who dare venture into illiberal politics are drawn to seek the legitimating shelter of its political lexicon. Time, it is said, to consign all those volumes dissecting liberalism's failings to the dusty archives of libraries, or to the pages of obscure journals of the history of political thought. Time, surely, to enjoy the fruit of our victory.
Such complacency calls for a gadfly or a Cassandra to dampen this celebration, to awaken us from torpor. In his latest book, Ronald Beiner of the University of Toronto sets out to do just that, and in this effort succeeds brilliantly. He has long been recognized as one of the most thoughtful voices of his generation of political philosophers, and as one of the most penetrating critics of liberalism. This volume gathers and rounds out the reflection of a decade or more; it brings together many of the central elements of Beiner's distinctive and critical voice.
Philosophy in a Time of Lost Spirit is a tour de force of critical engagements with most major contemporary political philosophers: Rorty, Sandel, Walzer, Habermas, and Foucault. Much of its richness is in the fine grain of these encounters; those drawn to it for its grand themes should also follow Beiner into the detail of his arguments. The rewards are many, for he displays a remarkable and rare capacity to attend seriously to positions he ultimately rejects, and his essays are as much an education in the act of philosophizing as they are in their various specific topics. Especially rewarding are Beiner's discussions of Habermas and Gadamer, his cutting demonstration of Foucault's hyper-liberalism-a definitive account of the essential liberalism of that saint of latter-day radicalism; and his drawing out of the ambiguities and limits of Charles Taylor's theorizing, while revealing nicely the motivations behind Taylor's treatment of such phenomena as Quebec nationalism.
Ideally, Beiner's other writings ought to be read as companions to this volume (though it can certainly be read as a self-contained whole). In What's the Matter with Liberalism? (University of California Press, 1992), he set out a detailed critique of liberal society. Philosophy in a Time of Lost Spirit picks out one aspect of that critique, namely, the role of theory in such a society. It is also a companion to his first book, Political Judgement (University of Chicago Press, 1983); the concept of judgement is a central strand in his critique of contemporary theory, and the guiding thread of his entire work.
The essays here are motivated by one dominant concern that we can sum up in the form of a question: How is it that in an increasingly soulless society, given over to a numbing consumerism and a nihilism of values, political philosophy has little to say? Why, when it does speak, does it seems content to think within the horizon given us by this society?
Modernity, in Beiner's account, is liberalism, and liberal societies (with the U.S.A. and California as their locus classicus) are described as world where "much...is sordid, empty, mechanical, and dispiriting." In a nice touch, he draws out this point through a commentary on a David Hockney painting, "Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy", the barrenness of which he uses to place in relief the emptiness, the anomie, and alienation of modernity. Liberalism, in brief, is not just an ordering of political and economic institutions but a way of life, a certain comportment toward the good or, better, a certain happy forgetting of the good in an orgy of consumerism, individualism, and subjectivity-of soulless freedom. But this is not a "mere" culture critique, as if the remedy could be found if only we had more Bach, less Madonna; more Merchant/Ivory, less Entertainment Tonight. Or rather, it is culture critique, but as a gateway to the soul that would produce and consume such things.
Societies, Beiner writes, are to be measured by the type of human beings they produce. And if so, he contends, we have fallen low, into a many-sided lack of value: an indifference to the good, a flaccid neutrality, a non-judgemental respect for all life plans, a super-market of identities. In this wasteland, one would expect (Beiner asserts) political philosophers to be guided by their vocation in the manner of, say, Plato, Rousseau, Nietzsche, or Marx; to develop a radical critique, to go outside the times and not merely to seek to understand them; to be in Nietzsche's word, unzeitlich, untimely or unfashionable, in the best, the most radical, sense. That this has for the most part not been done, that much political philosophy appears to have assumed that it must philosophize within this liberal/modern disposition: this is the core of Beiner's critique of contemporary social theory. The central essays here map out that failure to live up to the calling of political philosophy, that willingness to dwell happily within the shadows of the cave.
Beiner is not calling on political philosophy to craft a blueprint for a society better than ours. Just the contrary, he says that such attempts almost without exception yield only silliness. The task of philosophy is to expose our present lot to the full draft of radical interrogation, of the sort that Socrates inflicted on Athens; to break horizons, not to accommodate them. And Beiner is careful to distinguish between the activity of citizens and philosophers. Socratic virtue is not citizen virtue. For citizens, virtue may well consist in inclusionary understanding, in prudence and acceptance of the limits of the possible. But philosophy must seek to go beyond the given. Prudence and the moderation associated with it may be the excellence of the citizen; they are the death of philosophy.
In the essays that constitute the volume's core, Beiner charts the failure of much of contemporary political philosophy to call liberalism into fundamental question. To his credit, he focuses not on the stock figures, such as Rawls, Ackerman, or Nozick, but on harder targets: those who have secured for themselves a reputation for novelty and radicalness. He argues that antifoundationalism of Richard Rorty's type moves within and legitimates a characteristically liberal reluctance to engage in ambitious social theory, leaving the foundations of modernity unprobed. A rejection of the possibility of judgement, because of its normalizing or disciplining effects, is discerned in Foucault. And with that rejection, Beiner argues, comes a trivialization of the choice of one sort of life over another; Foucault's world is California.
The communitarians are not spared. Walzer's notion of no-escape-from-the-cave, with the resultant idea of philosophizing from within the given social horizon, and Taylor's inclination to understand rather than to judge both come under scrutiny. Embeddedness in a community is no virtue in itself, and certainly not for the philosopher, and thus the communitarian critique of liberalism is another dead end. Its standards are derived from the common stock of liberal society, and so it stands four-square within our present horizon.
Beiner's book is an appeal for just such a return, not to the letter of Plato's (or Marx's, or Nietzsche's) texts but to the root-and-branch critical mission of philosophy that they exemplify. It is an appeal to political philosophers (not necessarily to citizens) to put aside the hostility to strong values and sharp-edged judgements, to reject the respect for pluralism that often masks a disinclination to say, "This is the good", in short, to free themselves from prejudices that hobble them in their vocation. Tensing, not slackening the bow, is what is most needed in a world disposed to a thin and playful nihilism.
A book so robustly argued and so intriguing in its overarching thesis deserves an equally good book in response, and not the narrow circumference of a review. Still, here are a few observations on Beiner's core arguments. To establish the claim that contemporary political theorists are little better than liberal sheep dressed up as Platonic or Nietzschean wolves, Beiner depends, as he recognizes, on his readers' acceptance that 1. modernity is essentially liberal; that 2. liberal society is a place of "lost spirit"; and that 3. the vocation of philosophy is as he says it is. All three positions invite rejoinders along a considerable array of avenues.
1: What if modernity is plural in character, and is to be contested in all its forms, the liberal variant included? Perhaps the commanding heights of our epoch are the experience of totalitarianism, with the Holocaust as its defining moment. Arguably, the Holocaust left an indelible bloodstain on modernity, a pollution that cannot be expiated. Seen from this vantage-point, the unheroic practices of liberalism emerge in a different light: not as soullessness, but as a rampart against the murderous soullessness that was lived out in our midst in the middle years of our century. So likewise the reticence of political philosophy would appear differently. Its failing would now lie in silence toward that event (with few exceptions, Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem being the best known). That we have to turn from philosophy to poetry, literature, and film, to Paul Celan, Primo Levi, or Claude Lanzmann, for reflection on the Holocaust is a fact that ought to give us pause.
2: Beiner's portrait of American liberalism is questionable in a number of ways, most strikingly in his almost complete silence on religion. The centrality of religion in the American experience, from the founding period to the present, has been well studied and has been a commonplace since Tocqueville's discussions in Democracy in America. That the lived liberalism of America remains intimately bound up with religion is plain. Contrary to the Venice Beach picture of an infantile nihilism, much of America does believe that it knows the good, and is anything but reticent about it. They take books seriously; so seriously that some want books with decadent values to be removed from libraries and schools. They take mass cultural values seriously; so seriously, that they organize boycotts of Disney for its tolerance of gays. They take education seriously; so much so, that they want creationism taught in America's schools. In at least some of their rhetoric, they share with Beiner an hostility to the valuelessness that California is said to represent, and they use it, as he does, as a critical trope. There is hardly a major public morals debate today in which the voice of religion is not powerfully present: civil rights, family, divorce law, abortion, public education, pornography. But Beiner has little to say about religion in liberal societies. There are a few references to the Iranian Islamic Republic (he almost seems to praise Iran for taking books seriously, specifically, Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses; yet elsewhere he says he sees no reason why Rushdie should try to understand the viewpoint of those who have threatened him over that novel), some to American Protestantism in his discussion of Stephen Macedo, and a few in his chapter on Charles Taylor, where he shows little sympathy for Taylor's concern over irreligion. Religion, more than philosophy, seems to be the sanctuary of those who share Beiner's view of our condition. That philosophy, not religion, should have the role of value legislator may be a sustainable case, but it is not the one that Beiner makes. On his stage, there are really only two antagonists in the fight for modernity's soul: philosophy (as it ought to be) and a pervasive quasi-nihilistic liberalism. In fact, there are three, and a book on the "Time of Lost Spirit" needs to engage them all. The recognition of that fact might have induced him to revise his pictures of liberalism and of philosophy.
3: In its original guise, the Socratic vision that Beiner invokes as a model of philosophical activity depended on the idea of a special kind of eros, an aching desire for the Form of the Good that draws the philosopher out of the world of the cave. Without that eros, philosophy would scarcely make sense for Plato. Beiner gestures towards that, though other exemplars of his notion of the philosopher, such as Nietzsche and Marx, ridiculed the idea of transcendence that is the heart of this Socratic philosophic eroticism. In sum, he offers us the gadfly, but has strangely little to say about what it is that calls this creature out of the cave (to mix metaphors), except to argue that it is not the desire to sketch a better model of society.
Much of what Beiner sees as the unambitious timidity of contemporary political philosophy he attributes to the influence of liberal values broadly construed. It is almost as if these philosophers have, in their varied ways, drunk from the waters of liberalism (including the belief that democratic equality should constrain philosophic pretension) and returned, having forgotten Socratic transcendence. Surely a more plausible explanation of this diffidence is to be found in the anti-metaphysical mood of philosophy, a mood the roots of which are less in the ethos of liberalism than in Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, Wittgenstein's Tractatus and his Philosophical Investigations, and other seminal works of modern and early modern philosophy. It is this temperament, rather than a fear of offending liberal conventions, that makes it difficult for many to accept the Platonic vision of philosophy. That there is nothing outside of the cave to desire and pursue may well be the conclusion drawn from the Copernican revolution in philosophy, and not a smug, self-satisfied contentment that anaesthetizes our critical sense. But if this is so, Beiner's exhortation to philosophers to do as Socrates did will likely fall on deaf ears, and not because they are asleep (as Socrates suggested about the citizens of Athens), but because they are certain they are being called to a place that doesn't exist.
Only the very best books in philosophy inspire counter-argument and critique. Philosophy in a Time of Lost Spirit is just such a book. It is a model of political-philosophical engagement. And there is not a page in it that does not provoke and lead the reader to reflect on his or her activity, philosophical and political. The praxis of Beiner's book is perhaps the best evidence that something like the philosophic activity that he urges on us is indeed a possibility and an urgent necessity.

W. James Booth is professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. His most recent book is Households: On the Moral Architecture of the Economy (Cornell University Press).


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