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Reviewed by:
  • Reconstructing Public Reason
  • Damien Pfister
Reconstructing Public Reason. By Eric MacGilvray . Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004; pp xii + 247. $45.00.

The reigning characterization of American politics—that of an epic struggle between red and blue states—suggests how polarized the nation's democratic public culture has become on issues like abortion, gay marriage, stem cell research, and global warming, among many others. Behind this color-coded map lies an orientation toward political argument that presumes that a middle ground is impossible to find and that contentious political issues will be forever divisive. Beliefs appear so ossified and unchangeable that the argumentative underpinnings of democracy seem naïve. Are red and blue forever consigned to separation, or is "seeing purple" possible?

Eric MacGilvray, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, poses this question with a twist: "How can we combat the narrowing of our moral horizons that threatens to become a defining feature of modern societies and at the same time honor the diversity of moral commitments that we find in those societies?" (13–14). His thoughtful book, Reconstructing Public Reason, proposes a pragmatic modification of liberalism that hypothesizes making narrative accounts of proposed actions transparent, public, and prospective in order to test competing claims. By doing so, MacGilvray suggests that the "experimental intelligence" of citizens can be activated to secure legitimacy for collective decisionmaking.

While written for an audience of political theorists, Reconstructing Public Reason will appeal to scholars interested in deliberative democracy, pragmatism, and narrative reasoning. MacGilvray, in the first section of the book, positions his pragmatic political theory as an alternative to proceduralism, which cannot antecedently defend the norms it proposes, and agonism, which cannot reconcile an irreducible respect for pluralism with the need for political action. Pragmatism offers an alternative route to political justification by urging

us not to turn the fact of disagreement into a metaphysical necessity that drives us, on the one hand, to the construction of transcendental imperatives, and, on the other, to the celebration of existential uncertainty as a quintessentially human mode of experience. Instead, we should be willing, whatever our current beliefs, to admit to ourselves and to each other that we do not know whether and to what extent any particular set of beliefs will prove to be compatible with the possibilities that the world will admit.


Here is MacGilvray's sensibility on full display. Echoing earlier generations of pragmatists, he acknowledges individual fallibility and the need to establish criteria for judging when particular beliefs are reliable guides to action. [End Page 152] Consequently, removing doubts about particular beliefs becomes the animating force behind MacGilvray's pragmatist political theory.

MacGilvray's pragmatist roots lie largely with William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey, but he also engages contemporary interlocuters from Habermas to Rorty to Rawls. The middle parts of the book work through James's "will to believe," competing pragmatist theories of narrative, and the possibilities of what MacGilvray calls a "second pragmatic acquiescence." While some sections delve into debates that only a dedicated pragmatist could love, the majority of the book adds productive insights to the body of work on public reason.

The book's concluding section argues for a revival of political liberalism. MacGilvray's vision of liberalism is grounded in two complementary prescriptions: fallibility and transparency. He argues convincingly for a return to what might be called a "doctrine of fallibilism" modified by the insights of pragmatism. By suggesting that citizens recognize the uncertainty of their own beliefs, he reaffirms the liberal premise that disagreements which appear black and white (or red and blue, as the case may be) might actually be less intractable than they appear. Acknowledging one's own fallibility, while remaining open to others' claims, requires deft rhetorical maneuvering that MacGilvray leaves unexplored. A robust vision of eloquence, as theorized at different times from ancient Greece to the Enlightenment to the Progressive Era (to name a few), might guide rhetoricians in developing strategies to incorporate fallibility into everyday discourses.

Such doubt about truthclaims must play out in transparent dialogue with fellow citizens. This norm of transparency receives a decidedly pragmatic interpretation by MacGilvray. He advances...


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pp. 152-154
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