Liberating Judgment

Liberating Judgment: Fanatics, Skeptics, and John Locke's Politics of Probability

Douglas John Casson
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 296
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7rw9g
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  • Book Info
    Liberating Judgment
    Book Description:

    Examining the social and political upheavals that characterized the collapse of public judgment in early modern Europe,Liberating Judgmentoffers a unique account of the achievement of liberal democracy and self-government. The book argues that the work of John Locke instills a civic judgment that avoids the excesses of corrosive skepticism and dogmatic fanaticism, which lead to either political acquiescence or irresolvable conflict. Locke changes the way political power is assessed by replacing deteriorating vocabularies of legitimacy with a new language of justification informed by a conception of probability. For Locke, the coherence and viability of liberal self-government rests not on unassailable principles or institutions, but on the capacity of citizens to embrace probable judgment.

    The book explores the breakdown of the medieval understanding of knowledge and opinion, and considers how Montaigne's skepticism and Descartes' rationalism--interconnected responses to the crisis--involved a pragmatic submission to absolute rule. Locke endorses this response early on, but moves away from it when he encounters a notion of reasonableness based on probable judgment. In his mature writings, Locke instructs his readers to govern their faculties and intellectual yearnings in accordance with this new standard as well as a vocabulary of justification that might cultivate a self-government of free and equal individuals. The success of Locke's arguments depends upon citizens' willingness to take up the labor of judgment in situations where absolute certainty cannot be achieved.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3688-8
    Subjects: Political Science, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction: The Great Recoinage
    (pp. 1-22)

    The achievement of liberal self-government is by no means inevitable. It is a complicated, contingent, and ultimately provisional undertaking. This observation might seem commonplace, yet it is also commonly ignored. Enchanted by the belief that liberal democracy is the result of the effortless proliferation of universally accepted principles, its supporters have underestimated the difficulty of fostering stable and just communities both at home and around the world. They have failed to see that government based on free and equal participation cannot simply be decreed, and have thus overlooked the many ways in which such polities can falter. Perhaps such overconfidence...

  5. I Unsettling Judgment: KNOWLEDGE, BELIEF, AND THE CRISIS OF AUTHORITY
    (pp. 23-52)

    John Locke and his contemporaries were very aware that they were living in an age of intellectual and moral crisis. “The rules that have served the learned world these two or three thousand years,” Locke writes in theConduct of the Understanding, “are not sufficient to guide the understanding” (CU 1). In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, traditional modes of ordering experience were breaking down throughout Europe. The interpretive frameworks that had once served to explain and justify theological systems, political arrangements, and ethical imperatives were appearing increasingly inadequate. In the wake of the Reformation and subsequent struggles over religious,...

  6. II Abandoning Judgment: MONTAIGNIAN SKEPTICS AND CARTESIAN FANATICS
    (pp. 53-91)

    The instability and violence of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries signaled the difficulty of rational public deliberation within the framework of a scholastic language of justification. The traditional vocabulary had lost its meaning. Although the epistemic categories ofscientiaandopiniocontinued to be employed, they took on a hollow ring for listeners who were experiencing firsthand the irreconcilability of rival truth claims. The possibility that serious disputes could be resolved by appealing to scholastic notions of demonstrative knowledge or probable belief seemed painfully unlikely. In the midst of the incoherence of the religious wars, the line between rational justification...

  7. III Reworking Reasonableness: THE AUTHORITATIVE TESTIMONY OF NATURE
    (pp. 92-125)

    In his earliest writings, we find Locke responding to the collapse of moral and intellectual authority by appealing to the ordering power of the state. He insists that external coercion is the only way to achieve security and stability in the context of radical disagreement. Although he does not reject the possibility that human beings can discover moral obligations through reason, he is pessimistic about the possibility. Without a common vocabulary of public reason, a shared source of intellectual authority, sovereign power is needed to fill the void. Only the imposition of force can create unity where no rational consensus...

  8. IV Forming Judgment: THE TRANSFORMATION OF KNOWLEDGE AND BELIEF
    (pp. 126-158)

    When Locke sat down to write theEssay Concerning Human Understanding, he was not simply trying to explicate philosophical difficulties or construct an integrated system of abstract speculations. He turned his attention to epistemology in order to provide practical guidance for readers who found themselves confounded by the profound disagreements and sometimes violent controversies of his day. Instead of offering them a set of answers to their questions, however, he set out to change their intellectual conduct, to transform the way they governed their thoughts and behavior. He sought to convince them to embrace a new practice of rational appraisal....

  9. V Liberating Judgment: FREEDOM, HAPPINESS, AND THE REASONABLE SELF
    (pp. 159-184)

    Locke places a new notion of probable judgment at the center of his political-epistemological project in order to sidestep divisive and seemingly irreconcilable metaphysical debates without becoming embroiled in the thorny problem of multiple authorities. By appealing to the probable signs of nature, he offers his contemporaries an authoritative framework through which disputes can be mediated and judgments legitimized. Locke wants to enable self-government in the context of deep disagreement by cultivating a capacity to govern judgment according to public reasonableness. He urges his readers to combat their yearnings for absolute certainty as well as skeptical withdrawal by turning their...

  10. VI Enacting Judgment: DISMANTLING THE DIVINE CERTAINTY OF SIR ROBERT FILMER
    (pp. 185-218)

    When Locke finally sets out to convince readers that they are naturally free and equal and that the legitimacy of government depends on the consent of the people, he begins with a confrontation. Instead of laying down a set of first principles or explicating a set of definitions, he starts theTwo Treatises of Governmentby taking aim at the doctrines of Sir Robert Filmer. He asserts that Filmer’s justification of absolutism is not only logically dubious—it is politically disastrous. Then he painstakingly reproduces and refutes Filmer’s defense of a patriarchal right to unlimited sovereign power passed down from...

  11. VII Authorizing Judgment: CONSENSUAL GOVERNMENT AND THE POLITICS OF PROBABILITY
    (pp. 219-252)

    For many modern readers, the language of theSecond Treatisecarries an almost instinctive familiarity. The terms that animate Locke’s argument—liberty, equality, rights, and property—have become the common currency of contemporary liberal political discourse. While there have been substantial shifts in the use of these terms, the fact that we continue to employ them is evidence that they still have a hold on our collective imagination. These terms continue to shape the way we understand ourselves and our relationship to political power. However, the familiarity we have with Locke’s language can sometimes obscure the profoundly revolutionary character of...

  12. Conclusion: The Great Recoinage Revisited
    (pp. 253-262)

    Locke’s attempt to establish a stable and trustworthy monetary standard was nothing short of a fiasco. When the secretary of the Treasury proposed to stabilize the currency by lowering its silver content (or debasing) coins, Locke rejected the idea. He argued instead that coins should not represent anything other than the “intrinsick value” of their silver content. If the government abandoned the “natural” worth of coins, they would further undermine the trust that people have in their currency. Locke’s dogged insistence that Parliament ensure the worth or trustworthiness of the currency by maintaining its weight led to the Great Recoinage...

  13. References
    (pp. 263-278)
  14. Index
    (pp. 279-285)