Friday, July 04, 2014

Shklar's Vision of American Political Thought

1. Rawls the hedgehog, Shklar the fox — Shklar’s inversions; 2. History shapes our conceptual resources — Traditions of commentary — Political praxis over political theoria; 3. Versatile stories, different angles — Jeffersonian education, Jacksonian fairness — Political rights without natural rights?; 4. Tradition as mythology — Heroes with warts; 5. Madison: democracy as political grind — Hamilton: democracy as fact hungry; 6. Jefferson: democracy as self-government — Adams: democracy as dangerously self-destructive — Our two aboriginal forces: hope and evil

1.      With John Rawls, Judith Shklar will be recognized as one of the two most important politico-moral philosophers of the last half of the 20th century. [1] In 1971, Rawls published the definitive statement of liberal political philosophy in A Theory of Justice, and it not only revitalized the then widely recognized defunct discipline of political theory, but has defined its problems up to the present. Rawls the hedgehog spent the rest of his career restating, reshaping, and extending that powerful, central vision. Shklar the fox, however, while working in the adjacent department to Rawls at Harvard, left behind a fascinatingly variegated corpus of work behind. The most important to posterity, it seems to me, will be Ordinary Vices (1984) and The Faces of Injustice (1990). The latter inverts the traditional role of the political philosopher, fulfilled most grandly by Rawls, thus opening up a vast new space to be filled by theorists: instead of putting justice at the center of a systematic theory, she puts injustice, and she attempts to show how doing so requires us to reprioritize our conceptual resources.

Even more interesting, perhaps though, is the intellectual context in which Ordinary Vices appears. The traditional mode of political thought that puts justice at the center is also largely a Kantian enterprise (to which Rawls did much to give historical shape to). Rawls’s big enemy in Theory was the then-dominant tradition of politico-moral philosophy, utilitarianism. Utilitarianism and Kantianism had been the two overwhelmingly dominant traditions of thinking for nearly two centuries. No sooner had Rawls’ book appeared, however, then did a revival of Aristotelian-edged virtue ethics appear on the scene, rejecting the seesaw between means-end utility and deontological principle. Virtue ethics has been the most fertile tradition, it seems to me, in pure moral philosophy—but no sooner did it get its spurs, then did Shklar invert its paradigm. Reviving Montaigne’s inversion of Renaissance virtue ethics (which was before Kant and Bentham had blotted out virtue-oriented ethical systems like Shaftesbury and Mandeville [2]), Shklar makes an interesting case for placing vice at the center of one’s philosophy if one is committed to liberal democracy.

2.      Central to both Rawls and Shklar’s work was an understanding of the historical line of thinkers that give shape to our conceptual resources. [3] Most of Rawls’ work on history was relegated to his lectures on political and moral philosophy that he gave at Harvard, and that have thankfully been published. Shklar wrote important studies on Rousseau, Hegel, and Montesquieu, in addition to a whole series of essays on individual thinkers (most collected in her posthumous Political Thinkers and Political Thought (1998)). And part of Rawls and Shklar’s enduring importance will be because of the students they spread into the world, most of whom take very seriously indeed our intellectual inheritance. [4]

Shklar’s life was cut tragically short, and among the work she left unfinished was a bit of writing on the specifically American political intellectual tradition, which has been published as Redeeming American Political Thought (1998). As Dennis Thompson, one of her former students who writes the forward to the collection, reports, Shklar taught the subject many times, but resisted writing a book on it because, she once said, “the subject is too hard” (vii). Thompson cogently notes the irony of this from someone who’d mastered Hegel (let alone everything else she’d written on). But reading her efforts to wrangle American political theory into an explanatory pattern, one begins to not only understand why she thought so, but believe her. Thompson suggests that “the difficulty lay not in the theorists themselves but in the interpretations that commentators had laid upon them” (vii). However, Shklar was never much of a polemical writer, preferring the mode in which the coherence and power of one’s own vision sustained interest, rather than a self-conscious situating in the current conversational milieu. [5] Lack of polemic characterizes these essays as much as elsewhere, which leads me to think that the difficulty didn’t lie in scraping off (sometimes deeply embedded) traditions of commentary.

Implicit in her approach is an attempt to balance numerous conditions and factors in eliciting American political thought. Above all, it seems that what makes American political thought difficult is that its founders were also the founders of American political practice. And this is significantly different than our European traditions. Whatever the brilliance of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, or Hegel, they didn’t create a constitution and run for president. The fact that Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton created American political praxis didn’t itself make American political thought unique, and in fact Shklar looked somewhat suspiciously, as Thompson points out, at theses about American exceptionalism. After all, other countries have now tried democracy in various forms and have obviously had their own creators of political praxis that have touched off conversations about its functioning. But the flipside to exceptionalism is parochialism, and that has been an accusation about American political theory and Shklar does find it annoying. (See the beginning of “The American Idea of Aristocracy.”) Between exceptionalism and parochialism are the complex relationships Shklar tried to chart between an abstract, theoretical conversation and the historical practices it was intimately bound up with. It was this binding that seemed much more in force than in Europe. Implicit, I think, in Shklar’s book is a thesis about American political thought being itself implicitly an assertion of pragmatism’s inversion of the Platonic priority of theoria to praxis.

3.      One of the unique features of the book is that it tells what is essentially the same story over and over, from different angles. For some this might be annoying, and if she’d gotten the chance to get this work to press, I’m certain Shklar would’ve eliminated the repetition. But angular overlap, done right, is a strength of the essay as a genre. In fact, it seems a stylistic parallel to James’s pragmatist idea, in “What Pragmatism Means,” that thoughts are instruments and beliefs habits. And the trick about instruments and habits is that you apply them over and over in new, technically unique situations. That’s how you know it is a good instrument or habit—for if it broke down, you’d get a new instrument or habit. Likewise for developmental stories—the more versatile the story, the better equipped it is to explain phenomena, the more likely it is that that story touches on something real and operative.

Shklar’s story moves through three basic stages: the Revolutionary Era that establishes the basic pattern of American political thought; the second generation of antebellum Jacksonian democrats that heroically failed to face the moral problem of slavery; and the post-war rise of the social sciences. The focus of most of the essays is on the first two stages, and hardly move out of the 19th century. The book is split into two, with the first on individual (or grouped) thinkers (like “Alexander Hamilton and the Language of Political Science” or “An Education for America: Tocqueville, Hawthorne, Emerson”) and the second on specific topics (like “The Boundaries of Democracy” or “Democratic Customs”). The first section is more polished and overlaps less than the second because most of the second half of the book is the unpublished material. However, the second half contextualizes the first—it’s the larger story that the individual thinkers move in. For example, “An Education for America” begins, “Do we really know what sort of schooling is most likely to make students into good citizens? ... How does American democracy educate its citizens or help them to educate themselves?” (65) It wasn’t until the second section that I understood how the chapter was implicitly answering a Jeffersonian question that Shklar felt attuned to. For “Jefferson promoted a plan for what he called a ‘natural aristocracy’ through a system of education,” effectively “replacing politics with education” (“The American Idea of Aristocracy,” 150). The Jacksonians, despite using “aristocrat” as a term of political damnation, carried the mantle of Jefferson, because for them “education was looked at entirely as an aspect of citizenship” (“Democracy and the Past: Jefferson and His Heirs,” 183). Indeed, it is during the Jacksonian period that the moral point of view of democracy becomes explicit, if looked at and defended differently by our founding traditions of political thought. For when Shklar says in “Democratic Customs” that “voting and education are marks of dignity, not means to other ends,” she’s invoking a very unpragmatic rhetoric, and quite purposefully I take it. She says that for the Jacksonians, “it was ‘special’ privilege and ‘idle’ wealth, not their very existence, that aroused their sense of injustice. It was a struggle for recognition for them, the right to a dignified status as workers and citizens” (193). This polemically moral vision, she says in her presidential address to the American Political Science Association, “Redeeming American Political Theory,” expresses itself as “fairness [being] the very essence of their notion of justice” (99).

“Justice as fairness” is the (very famous) slogan that was the centerpiece of Rawls’s politico-moral philosophy. [6] Its appearance shows how Shklar viewed Rawls’ contribution to the larger frame she generates. But it unfolds legally in American political practice, which she takes to be distinctive. She notes that Tocqueville had already noticed that “all political problems in the United States become legal problems” and says, “since all our rights are inscribed in the Constitution, every citizen can and must claim his or her rights before the judiciary. American political culture is radically legalistic and focused on the courts” (112). If you take a class on human rights, they will find it important to distinguish between natural rights and political rights. Shklar’s point suggests that American political practice makes the notion of “natural rights” moot in working out justice in the American system. This strikes me as another important site for work to be done, for does it mean that we can just do away with the notion of natural human rights? Or does the presumed existence of natural rights motivate the debate about political rights? Can we chuck the metaphysics and just subsist on our “human rights culture,” which Rorty commended, or do we need the rhetoric of “natural” in some more robust form? [7] And is “justice as fairness” an inherently legalistic doctrine, or a moral conception of some kind? Since Rawls tried making a distinction between moral conceptions and the neutrality toward moral conceptions of his theory of justice, the last has seemed a pressing question in trying to understand liberal notions of tolerance. Shklar helps remind us what it means for these ideas to be embodied and acted upon, however we end up botanizing them.

4.      Shklar says of John Adams that he sometimes took history to be “a source of mythology” (189). There is something of the mythological, I think, in all forms of tradition—the live workings of the past in the present made self-conscious. The primary reason intellectuals like Shklar dig so deeply into the past is to make us aware of the roots that are providing our nourishment—and so that we can then make an informed decision about whether it is really nutrients we are getting, or rather poison, thus precipitating a self-conscious choice in what traditions we continue to perpetuate.

One thing that commends Shklar’s political intellectual mythology over others is that it is a polytheistic pantheon, not a unified whitewashing of differences. One thing our cultured despisers of the American democratic experiment have too easily gotten off on is the exposing of the warts on the Founding Fathers. Politically and culturally motivated historians through the 19th century are indeed guilty of promoting halos in their pictures through overexposure, which tends to also blot out many defining details. Perhaps American political culture was still too overinfluenced by the divine right tradition of aristocracy, which didn’t like its blemishes noticed and punished those who did. (A culture influenced, I suspect, by the Christian traditions of impiety and blasphemy.) But can we not have heroes, then? Do all pictures of heroes suffer from a whitewashing that is, on this account, a necessary byproduct of the hero-making process? Shklar would think this nonsense. If we had a more Greek mode of tracing our traditions, then we needn’t worry about manipulating the past. [8]

Shklar very resourcefully turns Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton into an in-fighting clan of begetters who disseminated active elements in our current political makeup, both good and bad—or rather, ineffectual when pure and by themselves, but generative when together and conflicting. “Redeeming American Political Theory” might have been the prospectus for the book she didn’t have a chance to write, and it is there she pulls together three of these threads, saying Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton founded “three political sciences in America”: “Jefferson’s was speculative and physiological. Madison’s was institutional and historical, and Hamilton’s was empirical and behavioral. None were perfect, all were prophetic” (94).

5.      Madison, who Shklar talks the least of in these essays, “devised a profound theory of political rationality.” Madison is probably best known for Federalist #10, which suggests that we shouldn’t fear the ability for change to quickly sweep a democratic system because factionalism will produce a tug-of-war grinding reform to a creeping minimum. As Shklar says, Madison had a “deeply functional view of democracy.” What attracts Shklar, however, is the bit that we rarely notice—how the experience of this political grind will affect the individual political agent. Madison thought that individual agents will “learn to appreciate the necessity of limiting their interests in response to the rights of other. ... The individual political agent learns to adapt and is forced to become more public-spirited as he accepts and follows the procedures that institutions compel him to follow” (96-7).

Hamilton responded to the “radical democratization of political theory” implied by the Revolution by seeing that “how to assess the behavior and attitudes of the anonymous many who compose the electorate was a wholly novel intellectual task.” What Hamilton set in motion was the assessment of the “tortuous and long road from the individual voter to the public policies of the federal government” (4). Hamilton was no particular fan of democracy—he was the Founder, you’ll recall, who wanted to import a king—and didn’t have a very high opinion of the voters, but he understood that “the modern state ... depended on information.” As Shklar says, “constitutional democracy is inherently a fact hungry political system, in which both those who govern and those who are governed yearn for solid information” (98).

6.      If Madison’s political sociology of interest groups and Hamilton’s political science of electoral politics seem the most of interest to a tough-minded political science, Shklar’s tender-minded spirit is most interested in the star-crossed friendship between Jefferson and Adams. The speculative element in Jefferson is what makes him the most admired by Shklar of the four. Time and time again Shklar returns to Jefferson’s dream of “replacing politics with education,” an education that would produce what he calls a “natural aristocracy” (150). Preceding the Jacksonian fear of aristocracy was Adams’s belief that any inequality, separating the few from the many, would turn itself into an oppressive regime. Adams was Calvinistic in this way, being deeply pessimistic about the ability of humanity to side with virtue against corruption. Jefferson and Adams pair nicely with the twin founts of American Romanticism: Emerson and Hawthorne. Jefferson is optimistic in the same way that Emerson was that the American citizen was “capable of self-government” (150), i.e. autonomy, self-reliance. But Adams and Hawthorne were too oppressed by history and their own sense of the self-destructive psychology of the individual to share that optimism.

Thompson suggests that if Shklar’s heart was with Jefferson, then her head was with Adams. I can accept this formula, and it captures quite well how we need to balance these two aboriginal forces in the American spirit: hope and evil. If you hope with your head, that’s when you end up with theological nonsense like the eschatological, providential future-perfect “this will happen—everything will end up for the best.” Likewise, no amount of intellectual evidence can tell you when to or not to hope—you either find it in your heart or not. Conversely, if you believe in the ultimate depravity of humankind with your heart, as Calvinism instructs and as Adams’s great-grandson, Henry Adams, seemed to find himself, then hope may prove impossible, turning a healthy skepticism into a paralyzing nihilism. [9] But understanding, in an intellectual way, that evil indefatigably exists in the world is a mode of tempering one’s optimism about outlook, keeping one tethered to the ground. Shklar’s heart was with Jefferson because she believed ultimately in the autonomy that education promised, and that is why Emerson, Hawthorne, and so many other pieces of literature appear in this and other of her books. Shklar did not believe, with Jefferson, that a natural aristocracy would or should arise, but as indicated by the title of “An Education for America: Tocqueville, Hawthorne, Emerson,” she took very seriously the idea that the democratic citizen had much to learn from books specifically, and their authors’ intellectual struggle with the experience of democracy.


[1] Important caveat: only partly due to ignorance, that assessment excludes (generally) all Marxist thinkers. This is because in part thinkers working in the Marxist tradition have (largely) excluded themselves from the conversation surrounding what liberal democracies should do, including the philosophical conversations to which Shklar and others were a part of. Anyone who holds that the “system” is irrevocably corrupt or faulty, and that the only thing to do is get a new system (what Bernard Yack calls the “longing for total revolution”), will inevitably fall back on the activity of diagnosis divorced from proposed action—there's nothing left to do, at that point, but endlessly point out how irredeemable everything is going on around you. And since I believe that Marxism in these forms will fade away because of their inutility, that is another reason why I don't feel bad for my relative ignorance or think it will mar my prediction about Rawls and Shklar. Some thinkers, though, like Foucault and Frank Lentricchia, who fall under this category are nevertheless quite useful. Habermas is so concerned with the functioning of liberal democracies that he hardly counts as being in the Marxist tradition. And there is one branch of what could be thought of as post-Marxist thought—in America known as “communitarianism”—that in the main combines with hope for democracy (even if it would quibble with the qualifier “liberal”). Of these, I suspect Michael Walzer, an important interlocutor of Shklar's and long-time editor of the, roughly, communitarian and thus non-Marxist, leftist rag Dissent magazine, will have the most enduring value.

[2] J. B. Schneewind, in The Invention of Autonomy (1998), tells the most complete story I’ve seen of moral philosophy from the end of the Renaissance and Reformation to Kant. His principle beginning point for modern moral philosophy is Montaigne, but on the revival of virtue (which figured so importantly to, for example, Machiavelli) see Ch. 14, on the now-neglected figures of James Harrington and Shaftesbury. (On Harrington’s importance to British and American political thought, see J. G. A. Pocock’s The Machiavellian Moment (1975).)

[3] The importance of this feature of their work should be entertained in the context of Anglophone philosophy’s general neglect of history. I would ultimately (and unsurprisingly) blame this on Plato. For some relevant finger-pointing on this score, one might see “What Happened to Political Philosophy?” and maybe also “On Literature’s Accidents.”

[4] It’s possible I’m more partial to Shklar’s students because, unlike the Kantian Rawls, they are more interested in literature and things American. I think the two most notable of Rawls’ students are Christine Korsgaard, who though an unrequited Kantian, has done much to help the general thinking-through of the conceptual requirements of normative autonomy that Kant and Hegel initiated (see, e.g., The Sources of Normativity (1996)), and Susan Neiman, whose Evil in Modern Thought (2002) is an exceptional non-epistemology centered story of modern philosophy and whose Moral Clarity (2008) is an important, nonspecialist book on liberal American moral problems. Foremost among Shklar’s students for me (exempting the unbelievably useful, though not well-enough known, work of the already mentioned Bernard Yack) is George Kateb, whose work on Emerson has been widely recognized by Americanists.

[5] In a number of disciplines, this is beginning to be frowned on as unscholarly, though really it’s a matter of instrumental self-analysis. Richard Rorty described this mode as “strong misreading,” though “misreading” might be misleading in this context. In a precursor piece to Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity’s more famous use, Rorty describes his theft of Harold Bloom’s term this way: “The critic asks neither the author nor the text about their intentions but simply beats the text into a shape which will serve his own purpose. He does this by imposing a vocabulary ... on the text which may have nothing to do with any vocabulary used in the text or by its author, and seeing what happens” (“Nineteenth Century Idealism and Twentieth Century Textualism” in Consequences of Pragmatism, 151). The key is the reversal of priority of the purposes for which the author wrote for instead the purposes of the reader. The scholar knows a lot about why an author wrote, but the only way to think with a figure from the past is to have purposes of your own. In Rorty’s more careful moments, he distinguishes this as a philosophical mode as opposed to a historical mode. (See his “The Historiography of Philosophy: Four Genres” in Truth and Progress.) The trouble with this mode, barring the scholar’s anxiety of it being bullshit, is that anyone can try and be a strong misreader and simply read a text as one wants—there’s just no assurance at an audience who will care for it. So, to compensate for a lack of self-trust (or for the accurate assessment of limitation), a writer might try and engage his compatriots’ views on the subject in the discipline. But such limitation shouldn’t lead us to resent the strength of others. It is, in the end, a gamble, for as Emerson said, “we hope it is more than whim at last” (“Self-Reliance”).

[6] The slogan first appears as the title of the 1958 paper that eventually was transformed into the first chapter of A Theory of Justice. It appears prominently in his major revision of his stance, Political Liberalism (1993), and its the title of the final slim book (2001) that was to serve as both restatement and primer (edited by Erin Kelly, as Rawls fell ill before he could make final revisions and expansions).

[7] See “Human Rights, Rationality, and Sentimentality” in TP. Rorty took the term from Eduardo Rabossi. Shklar wrote twice on this issue, in Legalism: Law, Morals, and Political Trials (1964) and American Citizenship: The Quest for Inclusion (1991). One of her students, Rogers M. Smith, wrote a massive book on the latter’s issue of citizenship in Civic Ideals: Conflicting Visions on Citizenship in U.S. History (1997). (Given the nature of writing big books, Smith had been already working on the project when Shklar began her set of lectures that became her book, and the two talked over their work often before her death.)

[8] See Rorty’s related use of “polytheism” in “Pragmatism as Romantic Polytheism” in PCP.

[9] There is a “book review” of The Education of Henry Adams Shklar wrote in the collection, but it is somewhat out of place with the rest. For Henry Adams, as Thompson says, “nearly defeat[s] her effort to find something of value in every thinker” (xiii). She was not a big fan of his alienation and irony directed toward the democratic experiment.

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