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Living with Contextualism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

Richard H. Dees*
Saint Louis University, St. Louis, MO, 63103, USA


If all politics is local, then any sensible political theory must be sensitive to the fine-grained features of the political landscape. No one thinks that one form of government is best for every situation, and a theory that fails to accommodate ‘local knowledge’ runs the risk of irrelevance. Yet we also think that political philosophy must rise above the particularities of context and transcend the muck-a-muck of daily politics.

Most theories, however, leave only a secondary role for context. They see it either as the basis for an excuse or merely as the data that must be plugged into a predetermined agenda. On the first view, contexts are only relevant when they prevent a society from achieving whatever the view regards as the best government for humans. If a society lacks the conceptual, technological, or economic resources to attain the best form of government, then its context absolves it from charges of illegitimacy. We find this view reflected in the attitudes of, say, those Americans who think every country should be a liberal democracy, but admit that some places are not yet developed enough to realize such a society.

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1 The phrase comes from Geertz, Cifford Local Knowledge (New York: Basic Books 1983).Google Scholar

2 Hume, David History of England from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to The Revolution in 1688, 6 vols. (Indianapolis, IN: Uberty Oassics 1983), 2, 525.Google Scholar I will rely on Hume’s accounts in the History throughout this essay, not because I think it is the most accurate version of these events(though I do think Hume’s analyses are surprisingly insightful), but because Hume is a philosopher and a historian who, I think, holds a contextualist view of politics. I defend such a reading of Hume’s political thought in ‘Hume and the Contexts of Politics,’ Journal of the History of Philosophy 30 (1992) 219-42.

3 I discuss this claim further in section II below. I should note that my use of ‘we’ is not meant to paper over the very real conflicts that exist within societies—as I hope will become clear in my later discussion of these issues.

4 See Davidson, DonaldOn the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme,’ in Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1985), 183-98.Google Scholar

5 Hampshire, StuartMorality and Conflict,’ in Morality and Conflict (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1983), 155Google Scholar

6 This point is made vividly in Michael Ignatieff, The Needs of Strangers (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1984), ch. 1.

7 For arguments along these lines, see Taylor, Charles Sources of the Self (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1989)Google Scholar, ch. 2, and ‘Social Theory as Practice,’ in Philosophy and the Human Sciences, Philosophical Papers, Vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1985), 91-115. See also MacIntyre, Alasdair After Virtue, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press 1984), chs. 14-15.Google Scholar

8 Defining what justice and security mean for them is one of the important ways in which a people constructs its identity. See MacIntyre, Alasdair Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press 1988).Google Scholar

9 My account here relies on Hume’s version in the History. For James II, see Hume, History, 6, 449-530; for Elizabeth I, see all of volume 4, especially 355-68. For a more complete account of Hume’s treatment of the Glorious Revolution, see Dees, ‘Hume and the Contexts of Politics,’ 231-6.

10 These points are discussed in Dubow, Saul Racial Segregation and the Origins of Apartheid in South Africa 1919-36 (Houndsmill, England: Macmillan Academic and Professional Publishing 1989)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, part I.

11 Hume, History, 1, 76

12 Hume says: Such a regular distribution of the people, with such a strict confinement in their habitation, may not be necessary in times, when men are more inured to obedience and justice; and it might perhaps be regarded as destructive of liberty and commerce in a polished state; but it was well calculated to reduce that fierce and licentious people under the salutary restraint of law and government (Hume, History, 1, 77).

13 My interpretation of the role of a critical social science is to reveal just such widespread mistakes. However, I think the constraints on it are much greater than the practitioners usually imply. See Fay, Brian Critical Social Science (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press 1987).Google Scholar If I am right, these arguments also show how we can reconstruct a distinction between what people think and what is justified. Contextualist justifications thus go beyond ‘ordinary consciousness,’ and so William Galston’s arguments against contextualist views miss their mark. See Galston, Liberal Purposes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1991), ch. 2.

14 Thomas Nagel suggests that we can find unanimity in some higher-order principles that can then become of the basis of a universal value of impartiality. However, I think he too quickly assumes that we can dismiss dissension from the principles as ‘irrational.’ Rationality is often one of the concepts that is in disputes in these conflicts, as Alasdair MacIntyre has pointed out. See Nagel, Equality and Partiality (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1991), ch. 14; and MacIntyre, Whose Justice?

15 As Bernard Williams puts the point ‘A fully individuable culture is at best a rare thing. Cultures, sub-cultures, fragments of cultures constantly meet one another and exchange and modify practices and attitudes. Social practices could never come forward with a certificate saying that they belonged to a genuinely different culture ’ (Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1986], 158).

16 Charles Taylor uses this example to make a related point in ‘Rationality,’ in Hollis, Martin and Lukes, Steven eds., Rationality and Relativism (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 1982), 87-105.Google Scholar

17 As Don Herzog reminds me.

18 This claim is, however, highly contingent. In the age of imperialism, many colonies would have gladly abandoned the global community if they could have. Indeed, I do not think we should blame them for their reluctance to enter a world dominated by those whose most obvious intent was to exploit them.

19 Of course, the parameters of this global community are still being negotiated, and determining its core values is extraordinarily difficult — particularly given the temptation of the economically and the militarily powerful to dictate its structure.

20 As Richard Rorty notes when he criticizes a similar view: ‘We have become so open-minded that our brains have fallen out.’ See Rorty, ‘On Ethnocentrism,’ in Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth, Philosophical Papers, Vol. I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1991), 203.

21 Besides, even the liberal commitment to toleration does not imply that liberals must tolerate everything. Toleration, like all virtues, has its limits; the interesting question is where those limits lie.

22 As such, toleration and autonomy emerge as values only within a given context. These values are, however, quite complex, since they require us to abstract considerably from our own situation and our own substantive conception of a good life. For examples of contextualist accounts of liberalism, see Herzog, Don Happy Slaves (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1989)Google Scholar; Rorty, Richard Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1989)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, ch. 3; and my ‘Liberalism in Context,’ Polity 25 (1993) 565-82.

23 See Williams, 158-60 for a similar point.

24 This objection was expressed to me most cogently by Rachel Cohon.

25 Because cultures rarely have clearly demarcated boundaries, the extent to which such condemnations apply to them is a matter of degree, and it may apply to some subjects and not to others. Note, too, that if the global community becomes more tightly-knit, such judgments will have an even broader scope.

26 This answer adopts what David Lyons calls ‘agent’s group relativism.’ See Lyons, ‘Ethical Relativism and the Problem of Incoherence,’ in Melland, Jack and Krausz, Michael eds., Relativism: Cognitive and Moral (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press 1982), 209-25.Google Scholar

27 These judgments are particularly difficult to make since the unintended consequences of our actions may be disastrous in a culture we only partially understand.

28 This objection has been presented to me in a number of different ways by Stephen Darwall.

29 I could say that slavery would never be justified, as James Bohman has suggested to me, because any practice that evolved in our society would have a very different meaning than slavery did in early America. While I do think that any future practice of slavery would take a different form than those in the past, I think that this reply places a faith in evolutionary processes that I do not share.

30 See Elster, Jon Solomonic Judgments (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1989)Google Scholar, section IV.3. A similar argument along these lines is found in MacIntyre,After Virtue, ch.S.

31 See Hume, History, 4, 366-68; 4, 123-4; and 5, 212. One of the splendid ironies of the History is that the Puritans that Hume hated so much were the indirect cause of the liberties he so much admired.

32 Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, 2nd ed., Selby-Bigge, L.A. ed.; revised by Nidditch, P.H. (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1978), 566.Google Scholar

33 And the fact that they did not convert led to the Wars of the Roses. See Hume, History, 2, 333-81,426-9.

34 Virtually all of volumes 5 and 6 of the History, I think, support this claim. For another account of these changes, see Herzog, ch. 2.

35 Hume, The Letters of David Hume, J.Y.T. Grieg, ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1936), 1, 111

36 For an argument along these lines, see MacIntyre, Whose Justice? chs. 18-20.

37 So, for example, while Hume discusses pre-modem events in the History and he regards many of the institutions of those periods as justified, he finds their cultures so foreign that he can scarcely understand the actions of people then living. For that reason, he finds little of interest to relate to his readers; nothing about early Britain is attractive to an eighteenth-century writer. See Hume, History, 1, 3-4; 3, 81-2; and 2, 518-19.

38 Here I follow David Hoy’s suggestion that only a view that assumes that the values of other cultures will converge with ours is perniciously ethnocentric. See Hoy, Is Hermeneutics Ethnocentric?’ in David Hiley, James Bohman, and Richard Shusterman, eds., The Interpretive Turn (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press 1991), 155-75.

39 Hume, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 3rd ed., L.A. Selby-Bigge, ed.; revised by P.H. Nidditch (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1975), 162.

40 I would like to thank the following people for the help they provided me on this paper and the issues that surround it: Elizabeth Anderson, Scott Berman, James Bohman, Rachel Cohon, Stephen Darwall, Allan Gibbard, Don Herzog, Jennifer Kwon, Peter Railton, Andrew Valls, and the editors and two referees for the Canadian Journal of Philosophy. Earlier versions of this paper were presented to the Nineteenth Hume Conference at the Université de Nantes in June 1992 and to the Eastern Division meetings of the American Philosophical Association in Washington in December 1992, and I would like to thank John Danford and William Throop for their comments on those occasions.

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