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  • Pragmatic Liberalism and the Critique of Modernity
  • Richard Eldridge
Pragmatic Liberalism and the Critique of Modernity, by Gary Gutting; xii & 198 pp. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, $49.95 cloth, $17.95 paper.

Gutting mounts his argument via the explication and assessment of Rorty, MacIntyre, and Taylor on mind, knowledge, and value. The position that he defends—pragmatic liberalism—“regards both knowing and doing as nothing more than human social practices, governed by norms derived entirely from the deep desires that constitute individuals as members of cognitive and moral communities” (p. 163). Though the position is similar to Rorty’s, Gutting is at pains to reject antirealism or decisionism with regard to either knowledge or value. Instead, he endorses “humdrum realism” (p. 32) and “ethical naturalism” (p. 56), the latter in the manner of Hume. There is a real world of mind-independent stuffs, and there are scientific procedures for discerning their natures and properties. The worth of these procedures is proven by their success in supporting prediction and control. But Rorty is right to argue that there are no philosophically discernible ‘superfacts’ that establish a priori that these procedures work. Cartesian attempts to ground the success of science in prior philosophical knowledge are fruitless.

Gutting’s ethical naturalism is likewise more sophisticated than cruder attempts to reduce away all valuations in favor of explaining human behavior nomologically. There are objective enough norms that govern our pursuits. But these norms are constituted not by reference to a Platonic, person-independent good, but only by what we most deeply desire. Gutting accepts from MacIntyre the thought that our deepest desires are often constituted through our immediate participation in historical traditions. But he argues against MacIntyre both that the Aristotelian tradition is not as robust as MacIntyre claims, particularly in the face of modern science, and that there is a coherent liberal tradition in modernity, a tradition that centers on the deep desire not to be taken in by the dogmatic claims of authorities. Indeed, MacIntyre himself subscribes to liberal norms of critical reflectiveness and conversation between local traditions.

From Taylor, Gutting accepts the thought that “freedom, benevolence, and the affirmation of ordinary life” (p. 110) are dominant values in modernity. Taylor is further right to note that there are such things as inescapable value frameworks and deepened understandings of value-commitments (not just shifts of preference). But these points do not support Taylor’s claim that these values must have a source in some person-independent good such as the will of God. All these phenomena can be explained by invoking the naturalist idea of healthy, deep desires. Contra Taylor and following Hume, “nature replaces the Christian God as the higher reality in relation to which the drama of our inwardness unfolds” (p. 132); “nothing beyond the natural is required to make sense of ethics” (p. 159). [End Page 445]

Following Rorty, Gutting distinguishes a thick private ethics of multiple routes of self-cultivation, traced most prominently in conflicting, literary narratives that offer options, not obligations, from a thin public ethics of the toleration of any pursuits that do not harm others. “Public ethics achieves intersubjective validity but at the price of moral thinness. The thinness does not amount, however, to a reduction to the punctual self. The agent of Rorty’s public ethics is a socially connected, benevolent self, both a subject and an object of our affirmation of ordinary life” (p. 133).

Gutting concludes with a coda in which he endorses the activities of analysis of our de facto concepts and norms (Kripke, Nagel), historical reflectiveness about how we came to have them (MacIntyre, Taylor, Rorty, Foucault), and conceptual creativity (Deleuze). These activities are all in order, particularly when they check and balance one another. There is no philosophical supertheory that combines and completes them, in such a way that our practices could be philosophically legislated for us from beyond what we already desire and do. “Enlightenment humanism” in the styles of Montaigne, Voltaire, and Hume is to be preferred to the legislative ambitions of “philosophical modernity” in the styles of Descartes and Kant.

Pragmatic Liberalism and the Critique of Modernity is a wonderful book. The...

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