Photos, Seghers, feminism, and some confusions about communitarianism
It’s been a while since I’ve used Substack the way I initially intended to, namely as a means of alerting people when my work’s been published. Sorry about that. For those who care, which I hope I’m not being presumptuous in assuming you to do if you subscribe, I’ve had three pieces out lately. The first, for The New Yorker, is about a series of very beautiful photographs of people touching, almost touching, or conspicuously not-touching. You can read it here. The second, for The Drift, is a contribution to a round table on the state of contemporary feminism, which is worth reading in its entirety; you can read my contribution, along with the rest of the contributions, here. Finally, for The TLS, I wrote about the German-Jewish writer Anna Seghers. You can read my short piece on her here. In other important news, Phil Christman’s essay collection, How to Be Normal, is out today. He’s a wonderful writer and his book is good. You can and should buy it here.
Now for yet another ramble in which I do not use Substack the way I initially intended to, this time a ramble about whether communitarian objections to liberalism make any sense, preceded by a number of fidgety caveats. If you’re here just for the literary criticism, I advise you to turn back now, and indeed, what follows may prove boring even to seasoned academics invested in political philosophy (such is the risk of allowing me a platform on which I can write whatever I feel like writing whenever I feel like writing it, which I’ve always maintained is a terrible idea). I’m the first to admit that the question of whether there are any compelling communitarian objections to liberalism is, in the worst sense, a personal—by which I mean a private, an insular—obsession. The communitarianism/liberalism debate is, dare I say it, over, or at least no longer live, in academic philosophy, where it is regarded by many as having a distinctively dated flavor, and I can’t pretend that the questions I pose will fascinate anyone without a professional interest in the subject. Insofar as the following will have any significance whatsoever for a non-pedant, it’s because a number of communicant-adjacent argumentative moves are prevalent in contemporary discourse, which of course may not be enough to salvage this post.
What makes the following even more boring is that it’s all tentative. I’m writing not out of a desire to argue, but out of a desire to ask. Some people claim that they’re always writing in order to figure out what they think, that an “essay” (essaie) is by definition an attempt, but I won’t pretend that I do not often write because I believe what I say and want to convince readers that they should believe it, too. In this case, however, I don’t know if I should or do believe what I’m saying, because I suspect I simply do not understand communitarianism very well. Several very smart people have insisted to me that communitarian objections have serious traction against liberalism, but I have thus far failed to grasp why they think this is so. Every time someone explains the alleged objections at my behest, it sounds to me as if the communitarians are simply confused about what the word “liberalism” means to anyone who’s actually defending it. So I’m inviting you all to correct me and to recommend particularly helpful things to read if there are any (I’ve poked around trying to find explanations of the communitarian objection that resonate, and read bits and pieces of usual suspects, but I’m by no means an expert).
In brief, what I mean by “liberalism,” and what I think most contemporary defenders of liberalism as a political philosophy rather than a vague haze mean by “liberalism,” is not some nebulous cultural or aesthetic development originating alongside the Enlightenment and yielding, among other things, a sense of personal isolation, the dissolution of bowling leagues (not particularly appealing clubs in any case), and the decline of the nuclear family. Rather, it is a specifically political configuration, and indeed, the very point of it is to limit itself to the political domain insofar as there is such a thing. One hallmark of a liberal state, in my sense of “liberal,” is that it recognizes some sort of public/private distinction (though different liberals draw the line differently), meaning that it does not seek to control every aspect of its citizens’ spiritual, social, and intellectual lives. Citizens must respect laws that restrict their ability to harm or obtrude on others, but they needn’t do anything particular with their free time. Another hallmark of a liberal state is that it is neutral as to what the good life amounts to; for this reason, it does not force its citizens to adopt a particular set of values—to cherish, for instance, traditionalism or autonomy. In other words, liberalism is an attempt to allow people to decide for themselves what they value and how they want to organize their time and social contacts. Those who value community are free, under liberalism, to try to organize their friends and families into tight-knit groups—but they are not free to impose their values on others by, for instance, kidnapping atomistic city-dwelling moderns and placing them in communes on farms. Inversely, those who value autonomy are free, under liberalism, to avoid obligations to the extent that it is possible for anyone in a society with other humans to do so—but they are not free to insist that commune-inhabitants also endeavor to maximize autonomy.
I use John Rawls as the avatar of liberalism here, both because he’s the person a lot of communitarians explicitly identify as their central interlocuter and because I happen to be more familiar with A Theory of Justice than I am with any other work of liberal political philosophy. But I think a lot of what I say will also serve to sheild any liberal commited to two hallmarks I idenify above—to a state that respects some aspects of private life, and to a state that remains neutral as to the goods its citizens should pursue—from communitarian objections. (Of course, there are also much trendier and, in my view, much more intelligible objections to liberalism, and I don’t pretend to mount a complete defense of it against all its possible enemies here, or maybe anywhere, since I don’t know if I think it can withstand other sorts of challenges.)
If you didn’t know already, thanks for reading this far, and here’s a brief gloss on “communitarianism.” Philosophers like Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, Michael Walzer, and Michael Sandel represent some of the most prominent proponants of the view, though they don’t call themselves “communitarians” or agree with each othera bout everything. Nonetheless, people group them together, because they all posed a series of similar challenges to liberalism, in particular liberalism as Rawls defined it, in the late 70s, 80s, and early 90s. Roughly and crudely, their issue with liberalism is—well, I’m not really sure, which is the problem. Something to do with the desirability of community and tradition, and with history, and with liberalism’s failure to secure these sorts of goods, and with its failure to overtly proclaim its historical character, or something. As I see it, after arguing endlessly with my partner about whether his communitarian sympathies make sense, there are three forms the communitarian objection to liberalism could take. I explain them, then explain why I have trouble conceptualizing them as objections to liberalism, in turn.
The Epistemic Objection
Many liberal philosophers defend liberalism by appealing to thought experiments that involve “the state of nature,” or something like it. Famously, Rawls appeals to the so-called “original position,” a state in which we do not know what race, gender, sex, religion, etc we are. We are asked to don the “veil of ignorance,” which oblierates our knowledge of how we’re situated in society; then, we’re asked how we would choose to organize society. The results, the two principles of justice that underly Rawls’s whole theory, are supposed to be fair because they do not privilege the interests of any particular group and thereby signal society’s respect for members of all groups. The original position thought experiment is a heuristic, designed to help us figure out what just principles should be; it does not represent Rawls’s beliefs about what people are actually like.
Communitarians might object by pointing out that we are, in reality, “embedded” (they use this word a lot). What they mean by this is that we are not sequestered behind a veil of ignorance. In fact, our interests and values and goals and plans of life are a function of our gender, race, friendships, family etc. Indeed, we are so saturated in community that we cannot even imagine what it would be like for us not to know these central facts about ourselves.
This objection hinges, I think, on a misunderstanding about what is meant by “imagine,” and just how qualitative the relevant sort of imagining would have to be in order for the original position thought experiment to work. When Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary, he “imagined” what it would like to be a woman in a loveless marriage: his act of “imagining” required him to enter deeply into the experience of such a woman’s life at a very granular level. This is “imagination” as inhabitation, and it is difficult, although not impossible, for a number of novelists and filmakers manage it, and arguably we manage it to some extent whenever we read fiction well. But of course there is also a different and less demanding sort of “imagination,” the one we exercise whenever we merely ask and answer the question of what is in someone else’s interests, or what would be in our interests were circumstances to change. We “imagine” in this sense when we ask what a friend would like for her birthday: we do not actually have to write an entire novel from the friend’s perspective to reason that, because the friend likes X, we should buy her X as a present, even though we ourselves do not like X very much. Similarly, when we leave the house with an umbrella, we “imagine” what it would be like if it rained, in the sense that we think about what it would be desirable to have on hand in a world in which it were raining. This sort of reasoning does not require us to summon up the sensation of wetness, to try to conjure auditory hallucinations of the patter of raindrops, and so on. It requires only that we take stock of our preferences, then ask how we would satisfy those preferences in a situation in which counter-factual circumstances obtained.
“Entering into the original position,” as Rawls puts it, does not require us to be able to imagine in cinematic detail what it would be like if we lived in ignorance of our races or genders, a scenario it would be difficult for the most accomplished sci fi whiz to describe. We are required to “imagine” what it would be like to not know our race or gender only in the thin sense in which we might “imagine” what it is like to be a friend who does not like pizza when we are trying to decide where to meet her for dinner. We do not, in this case, have to write a novel from the perspective of the pizza-hating friend, or imagine exactly how she would feel at each moment; we merely have to be able to reason that, since she does not like pizza, she would probably be unhappy at a restaurant serving only pizza. What is required, in sum, is only the very unexotic ability “to put oneself in another’s shoes.”
The Personal/Ontological Objection
Supposedly, the fact that liberals sometimes craft thought experiments featuring “unembedded” characters commits liberals to the belief that people are, in reality, unembedded. Now, I happen to believe that people are in fact embedded. And, manifestly, there are systems of ethics prevalent in Western philosophy that are insufficiently attentive to the social constitution of the individual. (Iris Murdoch and Bernard Williams are two thinkers who criticize analytic philosophy’s neglect of character in a sensible way.) What I fail to see is why this is a criticism of liberalism, as outlined above. Rawls does not believe that actually existing people are like people in the original position: he freely admits that the original position is a construct, a heuristic, designed to help us formulate just principles. It is not supposed to represent his ontology of personhood.
Perhaps the communitarian thought is that the principles of justice that Rawls proposes (which, if you’re interested, are, roughly, that people should have civil liberties of various sorts, and that inequalities in the distribution of advantages should be to the benefit of the least well-off members of society) somehow create a situation in which it is impossible or difficult for people to be embedded. But first of all, this simply isn’t so: under Rawlsian liberalism, people are free to found clubs or communes if they so desire. Freedom of association is certainly one of the liberties protected by the “liberties principle,” the first principle of justice. If the communitarian objection is that liberalism does not force people into communes, then we must ask the obvious: is it really desirable for us to force people into communes? In any case, liberalism seems to me to allow for better communities because it enables people to associate with those with whom they have some affinity, rather than imposing homogeneity onto a population that may have very heterogenous values, as some communitarians hazily and creepily propose to do, leading one to wonder how on earth they think they could achieve conformity of the relevnat sort without policies that verge on fascistic.
Second of all, and more importantly, this doesn’t make any sense! If we are, as a fact of the matter, embedded—if it is simply true that people are socially constituted—then it is no more possible for any system of governance to change this basic fact than it is possible for a particular government to outlaw mathematical truths. Liberalism could scarcely prevent people from being social creatures if we are, ineluctably, social creatures. (Similar issues arise in discussions of gender essentialism. If women are really so “naturally” maternal, warm, etc, then why should we have to worry so much about the decline of femininity? Surely a few best-selling books about girlbosses aren’t enough to overcome the potent forces of human nature? Shouldn’t women just continue to tend towards femininty naturally, even if the evil leftists are conspiring to make people enjoy sex or whatever? And yet there is no end to conservative scare-mongering about the effects that a song about “Wet Ass Pussies” will have on the delicate, modest flowers that all women so naturally are.)
A more intelligible version of the communitarian thought would have it that, if the deliberators in the original position are so unlike real people, then the resultant principles will not be relevant to any real people, either. But this, too, is a red herring. In general, idealization is an epistemically useful practice because it simplifies in relevant ways. An idealization is not a Borgesian map, converging exactly with reality, and this is the source of its power. It it didn’t deviate from reality, it would not be helpful in the least, for it would leave us in exactly the same informational position that we occupy normally. The practice of idealization assumes that not every fact about reality is relevant to every problem, and that simplifying can help us focus on the facts that are relevant. Rawls’s model, in particular, assumes that not every fact about what we are actually like is relevant to the formation of principles of justice. It is not relevant, for instance, that I happen to have a fear of broccoli because I bit into a worm-ridden piece of broccoli as a child; this is a biographical truth that simply has no bearing on the formation of the principles of justice and that I would do well not to dwell on, were I an architect of society.
People in the original position need not be exactly like real people who hate broccoli in order for the original position to inform us about reality. Indeed, the original position would not provide a useful heuristic if it just asked us to imagine that we are ourselves. Deliberators in the original position are supposed to know things about science, history, human psychology, and so on; they just don’t know what particular traits they will have. Rawls’s whole insight is that our particular traits, our particular biases, or particular loathings of broccoli or our particular investments in protecting white or male (or whatever) interests so as to privilege the groups of which we are a part, are not appropriate considerations when it comes to constructing a just society—which is of course not to say that they should feature in no deliberations on the ground.
The Historical Objection
Rawls claims that people can enter the original position at any time: he seems to think that liberalism is true, ahistorically, all the time. But in fact, liberalism “has a history!” Aha!!!!
Communitarians have a mania for historicization: they absolutely love to point out that liberalism “has a history,” but they don’t always do a great job of explaining why the mere fact of its history ought to invalidate it. Now, I’m all for historicizing, even when historicization does not end up changing much about how we interact with the historical artifacts in question. History is interesting in its own right, no doubt. I’d like to know the history of ice cream, for my own elucidation, even if I probably won’t stop eating it—unless, of course, someone explains to me why the history of ice cream should give me pause about eating it now. One thing that commentators (not just communitarians) do all too often is historicize something, or, worse, merely point out that it “exists in history,” “has a history,” etc, then sit back grinning, satisfied that they’ve thereby de-fanged it. Apparently, the mere revelation that liberalism is a historical development that can be traced back to Locke and so on undermines its claim to present interest or usefulness. But many things that remain worthwhile have histories. Penicillin “has a history,” which hardly ought to stop us from prescribing it.
It seems to me that there are at least two ways of “historicizing” something. Sometimes, historicizing a phenomenon can involve showing that its discovery has a history, without showing that it itself is thoroughly historical. Even things that are ahistorically true “have a history,” in the sense that our treatment of them has a history and our discovery of them has a history. Perhaps a mathematical theorem is as true now as it always was. The discovery of the theorem still has a history: there are reasons why it was discovered at one point rather than another, and the person who discovered it has a biography, and so on. All of this is important, maybe very important for certain projects in intellectual history, but none if it shows that the theorem itself is “historical” in the deep-seated way that a social convention is “historical.”
The second way of historicizing a claim does show that its very truth is historical, that is, that it is true only at some points in history. These days, for instance, it is not especially impolite to trip someone accidentally. This statement was not true in the Iceland depicted in the Icelandic sagas. There, tripping somebody, even by mistake, constituted a serious offense that might even give rise to a blood feud.
But even this latter, stronger form of historicization is not yet automatically debunking or discrediting, for a phenomenon can be true only historically and yet nevertheless true now. Even if liberalism would not have been just for medieval peasants, it might nonetheless be just for people living today. (Or it might not! But the mere fact of its historicity, if it even proves historical in this latter and stronger sense, is not sufficient to show that it is not.) It’s true that, in A Theory of Justice, Rawls is explicit that we can enter the original position at any time, and much is made of liberalism’s pretensions to universal and ahistorical truth. But the universality of liberalism plays a relatively minor role in the actual mechanics of the theory. It can be jettisoned without much damage. This is probably why later Rawls seems less concerned to assure us that his system is ahistorically just, and more concerned to show that it is just for us today.
Sometimes, of course, showing that a phenomenon or claim has a history does also work to undermine it. But this is never simply because the claim has a history of one kind or another but rather always because of the specific history it has. Usually, the kind of historicization that will reveal a claim we once accepted to be totally false will reveal that we accepted the claim under false pretenses, or for the wrong reasons. In other words, the relevant sort of historicization is not usually the historicization of a claim, but rather the historicization of our belief in a claim. For instance, Nietzsche argues that we subscribe to Judeo-Christian ethical systems solely because it flattered us to do so. If his account is true, then we have no good reason to subscribe to Judeo-Christian ethical systems. Is the history of liberalism like this? I don’t really think it is, but even if the history of liberalism bewitched its proponants into accepting or endorsing it, there are plenty of independent reasons that liberal political theorists adduce to support certain liberal institutions, like civil liberties.
WHAT AM I MISSING HERE? What communitarian argument is so persuasive? Please, someone tell me!!!