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The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 15.4 (2001) 286-304

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Liberty, Community, and Democracy:
Sidney Hook's Pragmatic Deliberativism

Robert Talisse
Vanderbilt University

Political philosophy has in recent years been squarely focused on a collection of controversies regarding liberty, community, and democracy that have collectively come to be known, with considerable reluctance, as the "liberal-communitarian debate." 1 As is common with philosophical disputes, the liberal-communitarian debate has undergone a number of significant mutations over the years. The ground of the disagreement, and the vocabularies in which the competing views are framed, have proven susceptible to the typical fluctuations. 2 Accordingly, the polemics most often have been awkward and shaky: liberals claim that the communitarian criticisms are irrelevant, while communitarians insist that their liberal opponents fail to understand the character of the communitarian critique. 3

That the debate has continued for nearly twenty years with little hope of a resolution has lead some to suggest that the issue simply be dropped and attention focused elsewhere. Hence Will Kymlicka, in a response to Michael Sandel, characterizes the debates between left-leaning liberals such as Rawls and Dworkin and left-leaning communitarians such as Sandel as "internecine" and "counterproductive." Kymlicka laments:

People on the left who agree on 95 percent of the actual issues confronting our society spend all their time arguing with each other about the 5 percent of issues we disagree about, rather than fighting alongside each other for the 95 percent of issues we have in common. (134) [End Page 286]

One can certainly appreciate Kymlicka's frustration, and he is certainly not the first to suggest that the contending parties have been merely talking past each other. 4 However, it is not clear that the debate can be simply abandoned for political activism. Sandel has argued in response to Kymlicka that part of what is at issue in the liberal-communitarian debate is the distinction between "left" and "right" and the forms that political activism may take. According to Sandel, political advocacy cannot be entirely severed from political theory (Sandel 1998c, 328). To press Sandel's point more strongly, the debate is not merely a confusion to be dismissed or ignored; the issues are vital and worthy of our attention.

This is not to say that the dispute should continue in the terms in which it was originally or is currently posed. Enduring philosophical debate can often signal the presence of pressing concerns of great import. However, it can also indicate the limitations of the terms in which the contending positions are formulated. One of the defining characteristics of the philosophical approach generally known as pragmatism is its sensitivity to the vocabularies within which long-standing philosophical problems are discussed, and a willingness to criticize and reconstruct these vocabularies. In this paper I propose and develop a pragmatist reconstruction of the liberal-communitarian debate. Towards this end, I enlist the work of Sidney Hook, a pragmatist philosopher whose work is at present largely and, in my view, unfortunately neglected. 5 Of course, problems are not solved by developing new proposals based upon the ideas of great minds from the past. Once formulated, a pragmatist approach to the current debates concerning liberty and community must be brought into confrontation with the other views active in the controversy. It would be an ironic betrayal of pragmatism to pretend that a pragmatist approach can put important questions to rest once and for all; the point, rather, is to develop a position from which future debate may be more fruitfully engaged.

That I propose to draw heavily upon Hook calls for some explanation. As I've already indicated, Hook's work is generally not well known among philosophers, even among those philosophers heavily involved with the pragmatist tradition. In this essay, I take an initial step in restoring Hook's standing among American philosophers. The following discussion will establish that Hook is worth restoring, that he has something of philosophical value to contribute to our understanding of democratic politics. However, my objectives are not confined to this promotional...


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