Our Politics, Our Selves?

Our Politics, Our Selves?: Liberalism, Identity, and Harm

Peter Digeser
Copyright Date: 1995
Pages: 284
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  • Book Info
    Our Politics, Our Selves?
    Book Description:

    Is statecraft soulcraft? Should we look to our souls and selves in assessing the quality of our politics? Is it the business of politics to cultivate, shape, or structure our internal lives? Summarizing and answering the major theoretical positions on these issues, Peter Digeser formulates a qualified permission to protect or encourage particular forms of human identity. Public discourse on politics should not preclude talk about the role of reason in our souls or the importance of wholeness and community to our selves or the significance of autonomy for individuals. However, those who seek to place only their own conception of the self or soul within the reach of politics are as mistaken as those who would completely preclude such matters from the political realm.

    In proposing this view, Digeser responds to communitarians, classical political rationalists, and genealogists who argue that liberal culture fragments, debases, or normalizes our selves. He also critically analyzes perfectionist liberals who justify liberalism by virtue of its ability to cultivate autonomy and authenticity, as well as liberal neutralists who wish to avoid altogether the problem of selfcraft. All these, he argues, fall short in some way in defining the extent to which politics should be concerned with the self.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2171-6
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 3-7)

    Is statecraft selfcraft? Should we look to our souls and selves in assessing the quality of our politics? Is it the business of politics to cultivate, shape, or structure our internal lives? For various critics and defenders of liberal theory and practice, the answer to this last question is a resounding yes. They see the effects of a regime upon our souls and selves as an urgent political concern. The reason for the critics’ concern is that liberal culture fragments, debases, or normalizes our selves. Liberal statecraft yields forms of soulcraft that need to be mitigated or rectified. In contrast,...

  5. 1 The Critics
    (pp. 8-60)

    We ordinarily judge the quality of our political life by a complex set of criteria: stability, economic growth, low unemployment, reasonable rate of inflation, rule of law, protection of basic liberties, the justice of distributions, the provision of security, the treatment of the less fortunate, and so on. Some of these standards, such as those related to economic performance, have only recently been seen as state responsibilities. Other standards, such as security, predictability, and stability are part and parcel of what we understand government to be. How these standards are defined, applied, and met varies with time and place. What...

  6. 2 The United, Unified, and Unitary Self
    (pp. 61-95)

    The critics’ descriptions of the effects of two hundred years of liberal democracy are not without plausibility. When taken on their own, these criticisms have an undeniable coherence and fascination. When they are taken together, however, they all cannot be right. For example, the communitarian argument that our selves are fracturing in all sorts of ways is incompatible with the genealogical claim that we are increasingly normalized and disciplined. Similarly, the classical political rationalist argument that we have lost all order and hierarchy in our souls is incongruous with the genealogical argument that the demands of order and hierarchy dominate...

  7. 3 The Well-Ordered, Reason-Governed Soul
    (pp. 96-130)

    The themes of disorder and impoverishment in modern times are conspicuous in the writings of classical political rationalists. According to Strauss and many of his students, liberal democracy stunts human beings and fails to foster a well-ordered soul. They believe that the prevailing intellectual milieu is indifferent if not openly hostile to the idea of a truth-seeking soul that possesses a given hierarchical nature. For the classical political rationalists, the transition to modernity and postmodernity has harmed prospects for the best souls. Supporting this understanding of harm is the standard of an individual who is both reason-governed and engaged in...

  8. 4 The Complex, Performative Subject
    (pp. 131-165)

    My criticisms of the communitarian and classical political rationalist positions seem to lead to an endorsement of the genealogical position. I took issue with the communitarians by questioning the value they attribute to the role of unity in the conception of the self. I challenged the classical political rationalist position by calling into question the rule of reason in the well-ordered soul. The thrust of these criticisms accords well with important themes of the genealogical perspective. A critique of unity coincides with the genealogical criticism of a normalized, coherent identity. Questioning the rule of reason comports with the genealogical rejection...

  9. 5 Liberal Soulcraft: Autonomy, Authenticity, and Autarchy
    (pp. 166-195)

    Up to this point I have been considering the problems associated with various criticisms of liberal democracy. The core of these criticisms is that regimes of this type practice an objectionable soulcraft or selfcraft. Assessing these objections has entailed examining the criteria these critics use to establish what constitutes harm. The contrastive nature of the wordharmimplies that we are able to judge when something is being harmed only because we have an understanding of what not being harmed entails. In the case of the critics I have considered, that understanding is found in a preferred conception of the...

  10. 6 Cultivating Agency?
    (pp. 196-213)

    I have argued that the capacity for choice, as expressed in the ideas of autarchy or agency, is an elemental feature of both liberal theory and practice because it is a precondition for much of what we value and its diminution or dissolution is a serious harm. Protecting agency is crucial to liberal democracies. In making this claim, I am not denying that we value certain talents, behaviors, and capacities that we have not chosen. Protecting agency does not rule out the more general protection of human abilities and engagements.

    If autarchy is an elemental value, do liberal democracies have...

  11. 7 The Liberal Method of Avoidance
    (pp. 214-242)

    Should politics be judged by its effects on our selves or souls? Despite their differences, the thinkers discussed in the previous six chapters agree that such judgments are appropriate and necessary. As we have seen, some judge that liberal regimes harmour selves or souls in a variety of ways while for others this regime holds out the promise of cultivating certain ideal conceptions of the self. For the critics and defenders of liberalism a political responsibility exists either to engage directly in selfcraft or to mitigate the perceived effects of this culture.

    When taken together, these positions compose only one...

  12. 8 A Permission to Cultivate the Self
    (pp. 243-256)

    Behind the liberal neutralists’ attempt to preclude selfcraft from politics is a fear of dissolving the private into the public. If not merely the personal but the person is political, then what space is left to protect from the collective, unwanted intrusions of others? For those who seek to establish a political responsibility to engage in selfcraft, the problem looks very different. To the extent that this culture deforms or misrecognizes us, we risk losing or mistaking the very point of our lives. Surely there must be a political responsibility to abate if not avoid such harms?

    I have argued...

  13. References
    (pp. 257-266)
  14. Index
    (pp. 267-271)