Civic Culture and Modern Philosophy
Philosophy and Civil Society

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Theme: The political consequences of the demise of modernist liberal political philosophy  
ESSAY 1: The Collapse of Enlightenment Civic Culture 
 

 

 

 

 

 

The ideas central to the prevalent form of Western civic culture were supplied by modernist liberal political philosophy.






 

 



 

 



Liberal political philosophy from its beginnings expressed itself in the language of the Enlightenment. Its conceptions of the norms of civic life were presented as a body of propositions about Man and History, a set of cognitive claims about the nature of things.






 



 



Our growing skepticism about the universalism and essentialism of Enlightenment culture accounts for the collapse of modernist liberal civic culture.





 

 

 

 



The question of whether liberal democracy can survive is the question of whether we can succeed in inventing a form of civic culture comfortable with cultural particularism.

 
 
Civic culture and modernist liberal political philosophy 

          During the last three hundred years, the ideas central to the form of civic culture prevalent in most North Atlantic liberal democracies were those supplied by modernist liberal political philosophy. This means that, on the occasions when some kind of coherent account or explanation of the moral and political norms proper to liberal democracy was called for, the ideas most readily available and rhetorically effective were those drawn from the tradition of political thought identified with authors such as Locke, Rousseau, Bentham, Kant, and Mill. 

          These ideas provided the dominant interpretation of the basic liberal democratic ideals of individual freedom and equality and were used to articulate the conception of political justice underlying liberal political institutions. In popular political discourse, rhetoric that appealed to notions of popular sovereignty, social contract, natural human rights, and to related ideas of authentic individuality and autonomous personhood seemed to have an immediate intelligibility and validity. The plausibility of these notions then served to reinforce adherence to the norms and ideals proper to civic life. However, during the last fifty years, the intelligibility and plausibility of these notions have eroded considerably and at an increasingly rapid pace. 

          This erosion is related to a growing skepticism about the universalist and essentialist assumptions underlying modernist liberal political thought. Modernist liberal political philosophers drew their vocabulary and arguments from the intellectual and rhetorical resources produced by the European Enlightenment. 

          The Enlightenment itself was a broader cultural movement that arose out of the religious and class warfare that engulfed sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe. Faced with the prospect of seemingly endless ethnic, class, and religious conflict, intellectuals sought to establish some neutral cultural ground upon which adherents of rival religious world views could meet and reach agreement. Following the lead of Descartes and Galileo, they sought to clear this neutral ground through appeals to new conceptions of reason and knowledge. 

          Central to these new conceptions of reason and knowledge was a conception of a cognitive method -- the method that much later became popularly known as the "scientific method" -- powerful enough to guarantee the culture-neutrality or "objectivity" of the beliefs generated by its use. The universalism and essentialism characteristic of the doctrinal claims of modernist liberalism were grounded in these universalist conceptions of reason and knowledge originating in the conflict-ridden world of seventeenth-century Europe. Liberal political philosophy from its beginnings expressed itself in the language of the Enlightenment. Its conceptions of the norms of civic life were presented as a body of propositions about Man and History, a set of cognitive claims about the nature of things as they exist in themselves, beyond the realm of conflicting cultural world views.

The crisis of modernist liberal civic culture

          It is our growing skepticism about this universalistic and essentialist standpoint of Enlightenment culture that accounts for the erosion of the credibility of modernist liberal interpretations of the norms of civic life. This skepticism has several sources. 

          First, the universalism and essentialism of the Enlightenment all too often has served as a cultural license for Western imperialism. Modern European claims to the possession of a privileged cognitive standpoint and therefore a privileged insight into universally valid metaphysical truths invited and legitimized disparagement of non-Western cultures, a disparagement entirely consistent with military conquest and economic exploitation. 

          Second, the very notion that universally valid knowledge can be arrived at by the mere application of a single cognitive method now seems a vast oversimplification. Needless to say, research enterprises are more important than ever. But their organization is now viewed by most as far more sociologically complex, their procedures and rhetoric as far more intellectually diverse, than Enlightenment conceptions of truth and knowledge could ever fully grasp. 

          Third, worldwide intercultural communication has become so routine and so economically important that any form of culture claiming a metaphysically privileged status for one particular model of political organization now seems hopelessly parochial and even an obstacle to international cooperation. Modernist liberal doctrine was based upon ideas that gave such privileged ontological status to liberal political institutions.

          Fourth, in America during the last 100 years, programs of civic and technical education based upon Enlightenment conceptions of scientific objectivity and modernist liberal doctrine have been implemented extensively. However, today it is apparent to many that these programs are failing not only as civic education, i.e., failing to produce citizens in the full cultural sense, but also as forms of technical education.

          Thus, the modernist liberal political ideas crucial for the effectiveness of modernist liberal civic culture have lost their plausibility and, I would say, are rapidly losing their very intelligibility. This fact is gaining recognition in many of the institutional spheres of our society that have been most influenced by modernist liberal thought and by Enlightenment culture -- the universities in particular. 

          The demise of forms of civic culture dependent on modernist liberal political philosophy, however, does not diminish our need for effective forms of civic culture and civic education. The proper functioning of free institutions requires citizens who have actually developed the normative attitudes, dispositions, and values proper to the standpoint of citizenship. To produce and reproduce such citizens, we must have the cultural means of representing the liberal democratic norms of freedom and equality in a coherent and persuasive way. 

          Accordingly, the question of whether liberal democracy, as a form of political association, can survive the collapse of Enlightenment culture is the question of whether we can succeed in inventing a new, postmodern form of civic culture, one that can render intelligible the norms of civic life in a way that no longer requires claiming for those norms universal and objective cognitive and moral validity. 

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Page last edited: 01/20/02

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