Juan J. Molina

Juan J. Molina
Juan J. Molina

domingo, 21 de noviembre de 2010

Universalism versus contextualism

Chantal Mouffe
Wittgenstein, Political Theory and Democracy

                                                                      Richard Rorty

The first topics I want to examine is the debate between contextualists and universalists. One of the most contentious questions among political theorists in recent years is at the center of that debate and it concerns the very nature of liberal democracy. Should it be envisaged as the rational solution to the political question of how to organize human coexistence? Does it therefore embody the just society, the one that should be universally accepted by all rational and reasonable individuals? Or does liberal democracy merely represent one form of political order among other possible ones? A political form of human coexistence, which, to be sure, can be called just, but that must also be seen as the product of a particular history, with specific historical, cultural and geographical conditions of existence.
This is indeed a crucial issue because, if this is the case, we will have to acknowledge that there might be other just political forms of society, products of other contexts, and that liberal democracy should renounce its claims to universality. It is worth stressing that, those who argue along those lines insist that, contrary to what the universalists claim, such a position does not necessarily entail accepting a relativism that would justify any political system. Indeed what it requires is envisaging a plurality of just answers to the question of what is the just political order. But political judgement would not be made irrelevant since it would still be possible to discriminate between just and unjust regimes.
It is clear that what is at stake in this debate is the very nature of political theory. Two different positions confront each other. On one side we find the "rationalist-universalists" who like Ronald Dworkin, the early Rawls and Habermas assert that the aim of political theory is to establish universal truths, valid for all independently of the historico-cultural context. Of course, for them, there can only be one answer to the inquiry about the "good regime" and much of their efforts consist in proving that it is constitutional democracy that fulfils the requirements.
It is in intimate connection with this debate, that one should envisage the other one, which concerns the elaboration of a theory of justice. It is only when located in this wider context that one can really grasp, for instance, the implications of the view put forward by a universalist like Dworkin when he declares that a theory of justice must call on general principles and its objective must be to »try to find some inclusive formula that can be used to measure social justice in any society«.
The universalist-rationalist approach is the dominant one today in political theory but it is being challenged by another one that can be called "contextualist" and which is of particular interest for us because it is clearly influenced by Wittgenstein. Contextualists like Michael Walzer and Richard Rorty deny the availability of a point of view that could be situated outside the practices and the institutions of a given culture and from where universal, "context-independent" judgements could be made. This is why Walzer argues against the idea that the political theorist should try to adopt a position detached from all forms of particular allegiances in order to judge impartially and objectively. In his view, the theorist should »stay in the cave« and assume fully his status as a member of a particular community; and his role consists in interpreting for his fellow citizens the world of meanings that they have in common.
Using several Wittgensteinian insights, the contextualist approach dismantles the kind of liberal reasoning that envisages the common framework for argumentation on the model of a "neutral" or "rational" dialogue. Indeed Wittgenstein's views lead to undermining the very basis of this form of reasoning since, as it has been pointed out, he reveals that »Whatever there is of definite content in contractarian deliberation and its deliverance, derives from particular judgements we are inclined to make as practitioners of specific forms of life. The forms of life in which we find ourselves are themselves held together by a network of precontractual agreements, without which there would be no possibility of mutual understanding or therefore, of disagreement«.
According to the contextualists, liberal democratic "principles" cannot be seen as providing the unique and definite answer to the question of what is the "good regime" but only as defining one possible political "language game" among others. Since they do not provide the rational solution to the problem of human coexistence, it is futile to search for arguments in their favour which would not be "context-dependent" in order to secure them against other political languages games. Envisaging the issue according to a Wittgensteinian perspective brings to the fore the inadequacy of all attempts to give a rational foundation to liberal democratic principles by arguing that they would be chosen by rational individuals in idealized conditions like the »veil of ignorance« (Rawls) or the »ideal speech situation« (Habermas). As Peter Winch has indicated with respect to Rawls, the "veil of ignorance" that characterizes his position runs foul of Wittgenstein's point that what is "reasonable" cannot be characterized independently of the content of certain pivotal "judgements".
For his part Richard Rorty – who proposes a "neo-pragmatic" reading of Wittgenstein – has affirmed, taking issue with Apel and Habermas, that it is not possible to derive a universalistic moral philosophy from the philosophy of language. There is nothing, for him, in the nature of language that could serve as a basis for justifying to all possible audiences the superiority of liberal democracy. He declares that »We should have to abandon the hopeless task of finding politically neutral premises, premises which can be justified to anybody, from which to infer an obligation to pursue democratic politics«. He considers that envisaging democratic advances as if they were linked to progresses in rationality is not helpful and that we should stop presenting the institutions of liberal western societies as the solution that other people will necessarily adopt when they cease to be »irrational« and become »modern«. Following Wittgenstein, he sees the question at stake not as one of rationality but of shared beliefs. To call somebody irrational in this context, he states, »is not to say that she is not making proper use of her mental faculties. It is only to say that she does not seem to share enough beliefs and desires with one to make conversation with her on the disputes point fruitful«.
Democratic action in this Wittgensteinian perspective, does not require a theory of truth and notions like unconditionality and universal validity but a manifold of practices and pragmatic moves aiming at persuading people to broaden the range of their commitments to others, to build a more inclusive community. Such a perspective helps us to see that, by putting an exclusive emphasis on the arguments needed to secure the legitimacy of liberal institutions, recent moral and political theory has been asking the wrong question. The real issue is not to find arguments to justify the rationality or universality of liberal democracy that would be acceptable by every rational or reasonable person. Liberal democratic principles can only be defended as being constitutive of our form of life and we should not try to ground our commitment to them on something supposedly safer. As Richard Flathman – another political theorist influenced by Wittgenstein – indicates, the agreements that exist on many features of liberal democracy do not need to be supported by certainty in any of the philosophical senses. In his view, »Our agreements in these judgements constitute the language of our politics. It is a language arrived at and continuously modified through no less than a history of discourse, a history in which we have thought about, as we became able to think in, that language«.
Rorty's Wittgensteinian approach is very useful for criticizing the pretensions of Kantian inspired philosophers like Habermas who want to find a viewpoint standing above politics from which one could guarantee the superiority of liberal democracy . But I think that Rorty departs from Wittgenstein when he envisages moral and political progress in terms of the universalization of the liberal democratic model. Oddly enough, on this point he comes very close to Habermas. To be sure, there is an important difference between them. Habermas believes that such a process of universalization will take place through rational argumentation and that it requires arguments from transculturally valid premises for the superiority of western liberalism. Rorty, for his part, sees it as a matter of persuasion and economic progress and he imagines that it depends on people having more secure conditions of existence and sharing more beliefs and desires with others. Hence his conviction that through economic growth and the right kind of "sentimental education" a universal consensus could be built around liberal institutions.
What he never puts into question, however, is the very belief in the superiority of the liberal way of life and on that count he is not faithful to his Wittgensteinian inspiration. One could indeed makes to him the reproach that Wittgenstein made to James George Frazer in his "Remarks on Frazer's Golden Bough" when he commented that it seemed impossible for him to understand a different way of life from the one of his time.


2 comentarios:

  1. I understand that DEMOCRACY is a highly valued commodity exported from the West and continued to be translated in the other societies as the only way to prosper or persist. Does Democracy really exist in any corner of the planet or it is a "theorem of impossibility". In the oldest, largest and strongest democracies people are be-fooled, their attention is diverted, are looted. Is it justified for the strongest democracy to install dictators and demolish popularly elected democratic governments at will to loot resources and make strategic partner. Is it justified in a democracy to invade countries on flimsy and fictitious ground to fulfill the dream of father of a head of the state? Or, is it justified that prime minister of the oldest democracy prepares for war and does not take the parliament into confidence? Are parties capable of winning elections with honesty and transparency with intentions made clear. Democracy is simply a way to rule people without let them know that they are being ruled by monarchs. Democracy, MY FOOT!

  2. I could agree with you in some things, it is not justified to invade countries, to install good dictators friends , to loot resources, etc.
    Democracy is not an ideology, it is only a way to take decisions by majorities. A politic ideology is a way to govern, for instance, marxism, socialism, social-democracy, liberalism, theocracy etc. Perhaps you don't agree with these ideologies and the different goverments who won the elections in those oldest, largest and strongest democracies but in my opinión you are mixing a political sistem: democracy, with ideology decisions. These bad goverments hide their decisions about to invade a country or to support a dictator behind “democracy” but it is false.
    Democracy has problems but if you compare this system with the others I hope you agree with me that it is the least bad .
    I think that democracy is not exportable. We, the democratics countries, can help other countries to improove their political systems but we should never impose it.