Wittgenstein, Political Theory and Democracy
I would like, however, by raising a word of caution concerning the need to bring to the fore the more radical aspect of Wittgenstein's reflection if our aim is to develop a new thinking about democracy. Indeed, within the broad framework of contextualism, many different perspectives can be adopted. There are, indeed, several roads that can be followed by those who share Wittgenstein's understanding of the centrality of practices and forms of life. Even among those who agree on the significance of Wittgenstein's later work, there are significant divergences and they have implications for the way in which one is going to develop a new way of political theorizing under Wittgensteinian lines.
I consider, for instance, that the criticisms levelled by Stanley Cavell against the assimilation between Wittgenstein and pragmatists like John Dewey have important implications for envisaging the democratic project. For Cavell, when Wittgenstein says »If I have exhausted the justifications I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: 'This is simply what I do.'«, he is not making a typically pragmatic move and defending a view of language according to which certainty between words and world would be based on action. In Cavell's view, »this is an expression less of action than of passion, or of impotency expressed as potency«.
Discussing Kripke's reading of Wittgenstein's as making a sceptical discovery to which he gives a sceptical solution, Cavell argues that this misses the fact that for Wittgenstein »Skepticism is neither true nor false but a standing human threat to the human; that this absence of the victor help articulate the fact that, in a democracy embodying good enough justice, the conversation over how good its justice is must take place and must also not have a victor, that this is not because agreement can or should always be reached but because disagreement, and separateness of position, is to be allowed its satisfactions, reached and expressed in particular ways«.
This has far-reaching implications for politics since it precludes the type of self-complacent understanding of liberal democracy for which, for instance, many have criticized pragmatists like Richard Rorty. A radical reading of Wittgenstein needs to emphasize – in the way Cavell does in his critique of Rawls – that bringing a conversation to a close is always a personal choice, a decision which cannot be simply presented as mere application of procedures and justified as the only move that we could make in those circumstances.
Using Wittgensteinian insights, Cavell points out that Rawls' account of justice omits a very important dimension of what takes place when we assess the claims made upon us in the name of justice in situations in which it is the degree of society's compliance with its ideal that is in question. He takes issue with Rawls' assertion that »Those who express resentment must be prepared to show why certain institutions are unjust or how others have injured them«. In Rawls' view, if they are unable to do so, we can consider that our conduct is above reproach and bring the conversation to a close. But asks Cavell, »what if there is a cry of justice that expresses a sense not of having lost out in an unequal yet fair struggle, but of having from the start being left out«. Giving as example the situation of Nora in Ibsen's play A Doll's House, he shows how deprivation of a voice in the conversation of justice can be the work of the moral consensus itself. He argues, faithful in that to his Wittgensteinain inspiration, that we should never refuse bearing responsibility for our decisions by invoking the commands of general rules or principles.
I consider that Cavell is right to stress that what Wittgenstein's philosophy exemplifies is not a quest for certainty but he quest for responsibility and that what he teaches us is that »entering a claim is making an assertion, something human do; and like everything else they do, something they are responsible, answerable for«.
When he is read in this way, many important points of convergence are brought to the fore between Wittgenstein and Derrida's account of undecidability and ethical responsibility. For Derrida undecidability is not a moment to be traversed or overcome and conflicts of duty are interminable. I can never be completely satisfied that I have made a good choice since a decision in favour of some alternative is always to the detriment of another one. In the perspective of deconstruction, »The undecidable remains caught, lodged, a least as a ghost – but an essential ghost – in every decision, in every event of decision. Its ghostliness deconstructs from within any assurance of presence, any certitude or any supposed criteriology that would assure us of the justice of a decision«.
For Derrida as for Wittgenstein, understanding responsibility requires that we give up the dream of total mastery and the fantasy that we could escape from our human forms of life. Both of them provide us with a new way of thinking about democracy that departs fundamentally from the dominant rationalist approach. A democratic thinking that would incorporate their insights would be more receptive to the multiplicity of voices that a pluralist society encompasses and to the need to allow them forms of expressions instead of striving towards harmony and consensus. Indeed it would realize that, in order to impede the closure of the democratic space, it is necessary to abandon any reference to the idea of a consensus that, because it would be grounded on justice and rationality, could not be destabilized.
That the main obstacle to such a democratic vision is constituted by the misguided quest for consensus and reconciliation is something that Wittgenstein's insistence on the need to respect differences makes us see very clearly. Let's listen to his advice when he says, scrutinizing our desire for a total grasp: »We have got on the slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk: so we need friction. Back to the rough ground!«