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Philosophical Convictions | The Nation

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Philosophical Convictions

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Wolin has an easy time showing that fans of Nietzsche and Heidegger have said stupid and irresponsible things about democracy. But he does not do much to show that the stupidities follow from their philosophies, nor that those philosophies are untenable. To do the latter, he would have to argue in defense of specific philosophical claims--those that constitute what he thinks of as democracy's "normative resources." He leaves it pretty vague what a "normative resource" might be, and how such resources are put to use in political deliberation.

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Richard Rorty
Richard Rorty, a professor of comparative literature and philosophy at Stanford University, is the author of numerous...

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Postmodernism, Wolin says, is "the rejection of the intellectual and cultural assumptions of modernity in the name of 'will to power' (Nietzsche), 'sovereignty' (Bataille), an 'other beginning' (Heidegger), 'différance' (Derrida) or a 'different economy of bodies and pleasures' (Foucault)." So one expects him to enumerate "the intellectual and cultural assumptions of modernity" and show why they should not be rejected. But Wolin seems to assume that his readers already know what these assumptions are, and are disposed to take rejection of them as a reductio ad absurdum of a philosopher's outlook.

Sometimes, however, he goes out on a philosophical limb, as when he says that Derrida's "criticism of the modern natural law tradition--the normative basis of the contemporary democratic societies"--leaves us with a "'political existentialism,' in which, given the 'groundless' nature of moral and political choice, one political 'decision' seems almost as good as another." In such passages as these, Wolin endorses the old Platonic argument to the effect that if there is nothing "out there" (the Platonic forms, the will of God, natural law) that makes our moral judgments true, there is no point in forming such judgments at all.

Plato argued along the following lines: Truth is a matter of correspondence to reality. Propositions are made true by things that are as they are, independent of human desires and decisions. This goes for propositions like "Kindness is better than cruelty" as much as for those like "Annapurna is west of Everest." Relations of moral preferability are no more up to us to decide than are spatial relations between mountains. The claim about kindness is as obviously true as the one about Annapurna, and so there must be something out there (something metaphysical, something that philosophers know more about than most people) that makes it true. If you deny that there is anything like that, the Platonist argument goes, you are denying that there is a rational way to choose between Athens and Sparta (or, as we moderns would say, between Social Democrats and Nazis). To agree with Protagoras and Nietzsche that "man is the measure of all things" is, Wolin thinks, to reduce the choice of democracy over fascism to a matter of taste.

The most dubious premise in this argument is the one that says that truth is correspondence to reality. As everybody who has ever taken a philosophy class knows, it is hard to specify what the correspondence relation is supposed to be. What, for example, does "There are no unicorns" correspond to? What entities make "There are infinitely many transfinite cardinal numbers" true? If you do not believe in the mysterious things that Plato called "the Forms," what exactly is it that you think moral truths are made true by? And anyway, why are claims about the existence of truth-makers such as the Forms, or "natural law," supposed to be more evidently true than the intuitive moral judgments they are used to ground? Could we ever become more convinced of the truth of a metaphysical theory than we already are of the truth of those judgments?

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