- Selective Memories:John Locke, Politics, and Shanks’ Authority Figures
Political Theory’s Locke scholarship has yielded some terrific ironies. Customarily put forward as one of the foremost theorists of liberty, Locke answers to this description when he demands a release from the “slavery” of absolutist government. And yet there have been the numerous and complex ways in which Locke has been read into alternative narratives of unfreedom in this discipline. With Hartz and then MacPherson, whole nations and eras were found hostage to Locke’s possessive individualism, and his capitalist, atomistic view of freedom. Hartz envisions the United States as a country locked into a stalled dialectic that starts with Locke and then stays with Locke by an absolute and irrational attachment (those “born equal” need no revolutionary attack on feudalism). Later, in the early opinions of John Dunn, Locke became our hostage. He was trapped, for a time at least, in the prison of our anachronism. The product of a religious worldview we did not share, he had so little in common with us that it was only by virtue of our capacity to cancel out these historical differences that we thought him a contender within our debates. Then came debates on slavery, gender, race, and colonialism. Locke stood with, was claimed, and was also foisted upon, parties both against and in favor of slavery. With Pateman, Mills, and Tully, Locke’s claim as liberator is found to harbor (in different places and moments) some of the deep roots of oppression. Universalist, rationalist, political thought stands accused of excluding all but the seemingly uniform White men of the West, Locke amongst them.
Torrey Shanks’ Authority Figures: Rhetoric and Experience in John Locke’s Political Thought embarks upon an admirable rescue mission. Her goal is to rescue Locke and contemporary political critique generally from the intellectual cul-de-sac that sometimes leads from encounters between his thought and identity politics. Locke, Shanks insists, has more to offer us than a hunting ground for mechanisms of oppression masquerading as human liberation. A new look at his writing and politics promises us a new Locke, and a new way of following in his rhetorical footsteps towards the rediscovery of useful modes of critique. I will outline some of the major interpretative strategies of Shanks’ work, and assess their persuasiveness.
As the book’s title suggests, rhetoric has a role to play in this re-reading. In the long standing dispute between rhetoric and philosophy, Shanks has a side. She’s with the former, but is interested in going beyond the usual game of gotcha wherein a so-called pure philosophy is shown its own rhetorical contamination. Here rhetoric wins, not merely because no text can evade its rhetorical dimensions, but because (with Ernesto Grassi and others), Shanks affirms that rhetoric does some of the important work of philosophy. It is not a mere extra that philosophers add to their repertoire to sell their conclusions. If they (and we) are ever to escape the familiar, to break free of unquestioned modes of thinking, we need the integral assistance of imagination, and metaphor. We need ingenium, the rhetor’s ability to make meaning by joining the diverse and disparate into new combinations (11). Shanks’ Locke is a practitioner of such rhetoric and An Essay Concerning Human Understanding affirms this doubly. Not only does Locke use ingenious rhetoric in this work, but he also shows himself intellectually dedicated to a compatible approach to language and thought. Shanks’ Locke is deeply attuned to the contingencies of experience, the mediated character of our ideas, and demonstrates this awareness by refiguring the familiar.
All of this involves a great deal of revision, and so it is clear that Shanks’ image of Locke is itself an attempt at the kind of refiguration she attributes to her subject. Thus, Locke, “the man of reason” is pushed aside. To accomplish this gesture, Shanks draws upon the Essay, wherein the opposition to innate ideas offers more traction...