A review of a Religion and Demise of Liberal Rationalism: The Foundational Crisis in the Separation of Church and State, by J. Judd Owen

J. Judd Owen might have found a better title to convey the interest and significance of his book. His topic is postmodern or "antifoundationalist" political theory in its dual guise as promise and threat. Anti-foundationalism, identified by Owen as a variant of historicism, is seen by some as a threat, both to political philosophy and to political life itself, because of its claim that "objective truth," universal and timeless, is not available to human beings. "Foundationalism is the attempt to move beyond the world of inherited opinion and mere appearance to the 'true world.'" But, say the postmoderns, there is no "true world," there is no vantage point outside time from which to gain access to timeless truths. Anti-foundationalism seems to leave us only with some form of relativism; but, paradoxically, it is also seen by many to hold great promise for furthering religious agendas. 

By clipping reason's wings, anti-foundationalism appears to open the way for reasserting the dignity and claims of non-rational religion. Owen cites Notre Dame historian George Marsden, who declares that in the light of postmodernism "there seems no intellectually valid reason to exclude religiously-based perspectives." The promise of anti-foundationalism, then, derives from knocking off that big bully rationalism, by showing that it has no more foundation than any other worldview, and by proving that reason requires as great a leap of faith as revelation or papal authority. With rationalism on the mat, religious believers, those hitherto slightly embarrassed victims of the Enlightenment, can hold their heads high and win back a place for themselves in the public square.  Owen concludes that both this threat and this promise are overblown. He does not find anti-foundationalism to be so good for religion as the partisans of religion hope, and he does not find that the anti-foundationalists have made good their critique of liberal rationalism. "It has not been shown by our leading critics of 'foundationalism' that rationally addressing the questions that are fundamental for human beings is impossible, however herculean a task it surely is." Among other difficulties with their critique, the anti-foundationalists do not understand rationalism correctly; what they "describe as foundationalism [is] a caricature that in fact has more in common with their own theoretical stances than with genuine rationalism." Thus Owen claims to present a "limited defense of liberal rationalism." It is a defense in that it is a hard-hitting critique of a critique. It is limited in that Owen goes only a very little way toward exploring or providing the foundations that anti-foundationalism claims cannot be provided. 

Indeed, he poses the question in such a way as to make one wonder how much confidence he has in the rationalism to which he calls us: "Is there any way to defend the life guided by reason without a completed and  certain metaphysics? That, obviously, is a topic for another book." Obviously. The postmodernists had barricaded the door against rational inquiry into the foundations; Owen at least has broken down their barricade and perhaps opened the door a crack, but surely has not walked through it. It's not merely that Owen has not given a "completed and certain metaphysics," but that he seems to have substantial misgivings about liberal rationalism, which hold him back from more than a limited defense. "Many important difficulties  for liberal rationalism must remain in the background of our discussion, such as the charge that the liberal conception of human beings as desiring primarily only comfortable self-preservation and material accumulation is reductionist and blanches too much spiritual and social meaning from human life." Owen may take us only part of the way, but it is an eminently good ride so far as it goes. He examines in detail the anti-foundationalist liberalism of Richard Rorty, and in somewhat less detail the nonfoundationalist political liberalism of John Rawls. He concludes with an examination of the sharply antifoundationalist, anti-liberal Stanley Fish. He believes that on the whole Fish has the better of the argument among these anti- and nonfoundationalists: Rorty's and Rawls's efforts to affirm  liberalism on nonfoundationalist grounds fall to Fish's critique and his anti-liberalism. In turn, however, Owen argues that Fish's antifoundationalist critique fails.

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Among the book's many strengths is its perspicuous, fair-minded, and intelligent account of the complex philosophical reflections of Richard Rorty. In a relatively brief space he lays out both Rorty's anti-foundationalism (itself a composite  constructed from the various strands of continental and Anglo-American 20th-century philosophy) and the way it's meant to cohere with, or even, Heaven forfend, ground liberalism in a new foundation. In remaining a liberal and defending liberalism, Rorty distinguishes himself not only from fellow anti-foundationalist Fish, but from many of his own philosophic forebears (e.g., Nietzsche and Heidegger) though not from all of them (e.g., Dewey). Although Owen only touches lightly on the theme, one cannot help suspecting that Rorty's increasingly strong obeisance to Dewey as his chief intellectual antecedent, not the continental thinkers to whom his thought seems closer in many ways ("Not Dewey but Nietzsche is the ultimate source of Rorty's anti-enlightenment," says Owen), is a tribute to Dewey's unquestioned democratic and liberal credentials. This may serve as important support for one of Owen's chief claims, that Rorty's philosophic critique of foundationalism is inconclusive, at best, and that "his discussion of epistemology is limited by, or rather is a strategy of, his moral-political agenda."

Owen's treatment of Rorty follows, in the main, the title of one of his books: contingency, irony, and solidarity. Despite the fact that he considers Rorty's "epistemological analysis" to be subordinate to, or in the service of his political and moral agenda (irony and solidarity), one of the best features of Owen's book is his presentation of Rorty's views on the contingency of all knowledge, or, more accurately, belief. Rorty's anti-foundationalism,  Owen demonstrates, is above all a critique of rationalism, and especially of the correspondence theory of truth, i.e., the view that true statements are those that correspond to the "real world," the "world-in-itself," the world "apart from any human shaping." One of Owen's great strengths as a philosophic critic is his ability to bring out the ambiguities and tensions in the thought of his anti-foundationalists. For example, he brings to the fore a systematic ambiguity in Rorty regarding his claims for the status of the "real world": that there is no such thing; that there is, but we have no access or knowledge of it; that there is, but we have no use for it; that there is, and that we know it to be purposeless and indifferent to human meaning. Owen shows how Rorty gestures (at least) in all these directions, and uses these various conclusions for his purpose of the moment. This ultimate lack of seriousness in his theoretical argument is part of what leads Owen to conclude that Rorty's moral and political agenda drives his critical analysis.

Owen thus engages in a sustained effort to uncover that agenda and the way Rorty's (various) theoretical analyses support it. That agenda can be described the attempt to build an altogether new kind of liberalism, one that gives up on classical liberalism's search for universal human truths such as are pronounced in the Declaration of Independence. Rorty's new liberalism is neither universalistic nor does it rest on truths, as these have traditionally been understood. Within Rorty's own thinking, his new liberalism is defined by the intersection of solidarity and irony. Liberalism, he argues, isn't universally valid or true but is merely our local way of conducting politics, the product of historical contingency, not of necessary truth. It does not reflect the way the world "really" is. It is "our inherited prejudice," no better, but no worse either, than the inherited prejudices or authoritative opinions that govern other societies. This proclamation would seem to undercut the commitment to liberalism, but Rorty thinks otherwise; "common humanity is too thin a basis for genuine solidarity. Liberalism thus understood is an "ethnocentrism," which we as a people can be thickly attached to as our own, in contradistinction to other ethnocentrisms to which others are attached. 

Owen nicely brings out the fundamental incoherence of Rortean liberalism thus understood. Liberalism is an ethnocentrism internally defined by a "suspicion of ethnocentrism" (its universalistic aspirations), and so Rorty is, in effect, claiming that "the liberal 'suspicion' of ethnocentrism (which he wishes to praise) is strengthened by the affirmation of liberalism's own ethnocentrism." Following Fish, Owen sees in Rorty (and Rawls) lingering elements of liberal universalism and rationalism, which lead both thinkers into an impossible position: their anti-foundational liberalism cannot stand. Because of Fish's clear-eyed appreciation for this defect in Rorty and Rawls, Owen believes Fish is the most profound of his anti-foundationalists. 

Fish's anti-foundationalism leads to an unabashedly anti-liberal position. He gives up the attempt, still visible in Rawls and Rorty, to ascend from the indefeasible prejudices and ultimate commitments of competing worldviews to a universal scheme for adjudicating and controlling these prejudices, as in Rawls's doctrine of public reason, or in Rorty's effort to completely privatize the descriptions and redescriptions of the world his liberal citizens engage in. Owen argues that Fish, as much as Rorty, is driven by a moral and political agenda. "Instead of formal universal principles [such as liberalism promotes], Fish would have us take our bearings by the norms, histories, and practices of different groups, i.e., of our own group." In Fish's words, "The alternative to the neutral principle is a real [i.e., moral] principle." Neutral principles are not universal, as they claim to be; they are "rooted in partial faith, equally functions of historical contingencies, equally exclusionary." But they are also less than "real principles." Explains Owen, "They can never fully displace real moral principles, since we cannot escape the need to judge what is the best course of action. They can, however, obscure the fact that we are so judging and thereby cripple our capacity to judge well, or…to judge in clear view our own moral commitments." The acceptance of universal principle, e.g., of toleration or rights of free speech, amounts to a capitulation of one's moral views; such acceptance is certainly not neutral, as liberals usually claim.  

Owen thus sees Fish's view of anti-foundationalism as more consistent logically than Rawls or Rorty. He nonetheless finds Fish's position deeply problematic.  Perhaps the core statement in the entire book is the following: 

The question of where a belief comes from [what Fish thinks anti-foundationalism is about] is not extrinsic to the substance of that belief as Fish supposes. If anti-foundationalism held consistently leads to the affirmation of a belief as true, and therefore based on more than social construction or our own interpretation, it would appear to lead beyond itself, to a recovery of foundationalism…. 

That recovery is based, Owen suggests, on the "capacity" (itself presupposed by the antifoundationalists) of "stepping outside our beliefs in order to gain the 'insight' that they are not well-grounded, adopting a vantage point from which it can be seen that no human belief is well-grounded. But it is precisely such a vantage point that the anti-foundationalist denies." 

With this conclusion, Owen insists that the anti-foundationalists have not in fact succeeded in shutting down the possibility of philosophy. Indeed, by awakening us to the problematic character of our beliefs and commitments they contribute, against their will, to a deepened appreciation for the necessity of philosophy. The end point for Owen then is not what Heidegger, the giant behind his anti-foundationalists, called for, a new thinking, no longer to be identified with philosophy—but is Socrates via the classical liberals, Hobbes, and, especially, Locke.