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Fr. 433

November 9, 2013

Cunningham devotes a short section in Theories of Democracy‘s third chapter to the political formulation of an age-old question in the methodology of intellectual history. Do an individual’s political beliefs owe to his or her overall philosophico-theoretical commitments or do the individual’s overall philosophico-theoretical commitmments owe to his or her political beliefs?

This query can be seen to derive from that at which the opening sentence hints. In studying so-called intellectual history or history of ideas, on which aspect is the historian to focus? More specifically, to which aspect is the historian to ascribe causal efficacy or potency? Material history or products of the intellect? In other words, did such and such a historical event take place because of the ideas motivation its agents and circulating more broadly amongst the population at a given time? Or did the material circumstances of the time give rise to the ideas that would then come to justify or make sense of those circumstances? For example, one might ask to which cause the French Revolution could be attributed: material inequality or theoretical demands for equality.

Although one is certainly tempted to answer the question in terms of a neat either/or, it is not clear that this divide can  be so framed in that the case can be made for either causal direction. Without going into the details, perhaps it would more appropriate to speak of a sort of causal mirroring or reflection in which both causal chains advance simultaneously, step in step, such that examination of one chain would amount to an indirect examination of the other. In the end, each would be endowed of a measure of causal efficacy, however much philosophers might be wont to balk at such a multiplicity of causes.

To come back to Cunningham’s distinction between the different causal chains in democratic, the discussion is not framed in quite the same way. Cunningham first seeks to account for the reasons why different political theorists might differ in their characterization of liberal democracy when he writes that:

“[S]ome variations in the characterization of liberal democracy can be partly explained by reference to the philosophical positions of the theorists involved who, themselves, often explicitly correlate democratic-political views with philosophical ones. A challenging task in the history of ideas is to interrogate such claims of correlation by questioning whether adherence to philosophical positions motivates stances regarding democratic politics or determination to justify political positions motivates theorists to invent to seize upon philosophical positions for this purpose” (Cunningham, p. 32).

Although Cunningham does not propose to address this distinction himself at any length, he does not recuse the question as a non-starter nor does he claim to remain entirely impartial on the matter. Indeed, he himself sees a way forward that proves more plausible, at least on his view. More specifically, he “cannot resist registering a suspicion that democratic theorists are rarely if ever driven by abstract philosophy to major political stances they would rather not take. Conversely, when theorists presuppose or are actively committed to important politically relevant matters, they will find a way to make their political-philosophical positions accommodate them” (idem.). 

Whereas Cunningham’s previous wording lead one to believe that, on his view, the possibility of “epistemological neatness” was unlikely as regards one’s (political) belief system, his follow-up remarks indicate a way in which someone trying to understand causal potency in political theory might overcome the impasse that seems to plague this theory as much as it does that of the history of ideas. In appealing to intuition and empirical evidence, Cunningham holds that there is a (fairly) simple answer to the question: “what sets it all in motion?”. For the author gathers from his own observation and reading that political theorists first hold a democratic-political stance on this or that issue and only then seek to find a way to integrate this particular stance into their broader political-philosophical positions. In other words, faced with a prior belief or commitment on this or that issue, the theorist must then make sense of this commitment from his or her broader philosophical perspective.

Certainly, this suggestion brings with it a certain “epistemological neatness” at the level of causal efficacy in that the latter is made simple or singular. Yet it obscures what one might otherwise consider another aspect of that same “neatness” in that it is not from the standpoint of a fully worked out, thoroughly logical, political-philosophical position that one’s beliefs are to be understood. On the contrary, one tends to form commitments on an ad hoc or case-by-case basis (although not in the sense of arbitrariness) as one comes across different positions and issues. Put still more simply, one believes what one believes and goes from there. In sum, the content of one’s democratic-political worldview cannot be derived in advance from a political-philosophical position as a set of packaged beliefs because individuals will, to a greater or lesser extent, inevitably diverge from that packaged set.

Hence the reasons for dismissing a different “epistemological neatness” on this view. At any given time, the individual can only have a best a partial, non-synoptic understanding of him or herself that does not admit of a full, coherent understanding of him or herself and, thus, must proceed in piecemeal fashion. There can be no neat, clean or packaged view of the individual insofar as one’s broader position has to be made to accommodate ever new commitments all the while remaining consistent with itself across various sub-fields of one’s political-philosophical position. Perhaps the reason for this owes simply to the nature of human cognition. As discursive entities, there can be no question of grasping every relevant entailment of a larger position at once. These things must be worked out over time. As embodied beings, one’s commitments to this or that derive in large part from the contingent nature of experience, namely, those things, positions or beliefs with which one comes into contact in the course of daily life. In the end, although Cunningham attempts nothing of the sort, perhaps his reasons for holding the view above owe precisely to this discursiveness and embodiedness.

 

 

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