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  • Philosophy and Democracy
  • Philippe Raynaud (bio)
The Ennobling of Democracy: The Challenge of the Postmodern Age by Thomas Pangle. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. 227 pp.

Thomas Pangle's The Ennobling of Democracy deals with a major problem of today's democracies: the contrast between their external victory over their principal adversaries (fascism and communism) and the weakening of their own internal civic bonds, a weakening linked to the forgetting or misunderstanding of their founding principles. Nothing is more striking from this point of view than the differences in the demands for the "rights of man" between East and West. In the communist world, these demands aimed at nothing other than the freedom proclaimed by the Western revolutions of the late eighteenth century, while in the West, democratic radicalism is forever discovering new "rights" whose real or supposed nonfulfillment furnishes evidence against liberal society, which is thus somehow always "on trial."

Since the French Revolution, keen observers like Burke (who was at once a liberal and a conservative) have understood that the logic of the "rights of man" paves the way for an open-ended dynamic of making demands, for the simple reason that this logic places the natural rights of the individual above the fragile achievements of civilization. Modern democracy cannot disown the idea of rights, which is one of its most basic principles, but neither can it give effective substance to the idea without creating institutional arrangements that can always come to seem like restrictions on liberty or obstacles to equality.

In itself, such a tension is not new (it was at the heart of Tocqueville's thought). Yet today it has acquired heightened importance [End Page 124] due to the "historic" triumph of the democracies, whose intrinsic tendencies have been reinforced by the disappearance (perhaps temporary) of their external enemies. In the United States, it is especially clear that the new radicalism traces its roots to ideologies of European (i.e., German and French) provenance that often appear as violent negations of the traditional American creed. What gives Pangle's book its pertinence is the way in which he illuminates the complex relations at play between politics and "culture." His work therefore deserves to be discussed on a level that is both philosophical and political.

The Ennobling of Democracy opens with a critical discussion of "postmodernism" as it is conceived by its most illustrious theoretician and advocate, Jean-Franqois Lyotard. Pangle, who correctly notes the Heideggerian origins of many notions now current in French philosophy, follows several other commentators in deploring the fact that Lyotard's criticism of modern rationalism leads him to a general rejection of reason. Just as Lyotard enters the scene as an heir to the Greek sophists Gorgias and Protagoras, Pangle claims as his model Socrates, whose rationalism included a superior form of skepticism that enables it to escape the critiques issuing from the sophistic tradition. Pangle would have us conclude that the postmodern sophist can thus be beaten on his own ground, since he will find himself faced with an argument that expresses a stronger position. For the Socratic rationalist can give whatever is correct in the views of his adversary its due without becoming caught in the contradiction of arguing against the very concept of truth. Yet one could also respond that, precisely insofar as the truth comes to light in dialogue through the discovery of the strongest argument, it is in fact Lyotard's view that best expresses the "true" nature of truth and one could thus continue the dialogue indefinitely.

Let us note, however, that these questions have been revisited over the past few years in a new context—one marked simultaneously by controversies over the "critical rationalism" of Karl Popper and Hans Albert, by the heritage of German idealism (Kantian and post-Kantian), and by analytical philosophy. It is regrettable that Pangle privileges the thought of Lyotard alone, and also fails to discuss the critics of postmodernism within French philosophy itself, such as Vincent Descombes, Luc Ferry, and Alain Renaut. The importance of Pangle's book, then, lies less in his critical comments regarding this or that "postmodern" thinker than in his own theses, which concern modern philosophy...


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pp. 124-127
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