AL&P: JJ Stuhr Chapters 1 & 2

2007-04-02 00:00

I’m playing a bit of catch-up here, as I was supposed to have written about John Stuhr’s introduction and first chapter of Pragmatism, Postmodernism, and the Future of Philosophy some time ago, and now should be writing on chapter two. My initial reactions to Stuhr’s ruminations on “liberalism” and “liberal democracy” put me off to his theories; it seems to me his project is to somehow justify outmoded political models, or at best to capitalize on positive associations with liberalism and democracy. He calls upon Dewey and Foucault, in turn, to attempt to reject static historical education, which ironically must be cited as an historical view. Stuhr seems to not even acknowledge that his attempt to remake liberalism is nothing short of exploiting the positive association between liberalism and political theory for many philosophers. His resulting proposal seems to resemble liberalism little, though there is little proposal to be had thus far (two chapters in). In chapter two, “The Defects of Liberalism: The Lasting Effects of Negative Pragmatism” Stuhr invokes an obscure philosopher named Hocking. He seems to spend most of the space he could have used to provide an in depth analysis of Hocking’s work to convince us that Hocking is obscure and was, in fact, a legitimate philosopher. It seems an unfair characterization of Hocking was done, specifically because there would be so few philosophers who would be attached to the ideas he presented. As Stuhr accused Hocking of making a caricature of pragmatism, so (it seems) Stuhr made a caricature of Hocking. Hocking’s arguments against liberalism are the only facet of his philosophy worth much, according to Stuhr. I am incline to agree, as it seems even Hocking, an idealist philosopher reacting against the philosophical fashion of pragmatism, could not reject the belief that rational behaviour and thought were the only legitimate kind. This is something that is at the core of almost all philosophy published today, to the extent that no one seems to dare say that irrational things can even happen in any real way. In my mind, rational thought to the exclusion of all else is a prejudice, not a virtue. If Hocking had accepted that simple idea into his philosophy, the arguments against pragmatism might have been seen as valid, though conditional on the existence of irrational things. (Irrational behaviour would include things like, as least tentatively, the Prisoner’s Dilemma.) I’m very sympathetic to Hocking’s notions (in a similar, but, I feel, different way) in as much as it seems that liberalism is a failed endeavor as it stands. Stuhr attempts to somehow bypass this failure by calling what he proposes “postliberalism,” but having never achieved liberalism as he defines it (just as Communism was never actualized as defined by Marx) I don’t see how we can push through to any postliberal ideal; it seems Stuhr is simply redefining liberalism, coining a new term, and attempting to push the agenda it produces as progress, when it is simply (another) attempt to enact a very old idea. (Again, the irony of enacting old ideas to serve the purpose of creating a past-independent future must be noted) As for the criticisms of liberalism Hocking provides, none are truly dire unless one assumes fixed values, or that universal values are the proper expression of a liberal democracy, so, while criticisms in the dialectical sense, their solution is in the practical: allowing plural values negates such problems.

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