American philosopher Stanley Cavell is read widely across the humanities and social sciences, yet his work has not received much uptake in the field of political philosophy. My new book Stanley Cavell’s Democratic Perfectionism addresses this gap by arguing that Cavell advances a distinctive approach to political theory that I call democratic perfectionism. What, then, is democratic perfectionism?
Within normative philosophy, perfectionist approaches posit an account of the good life and then describe principles that help make this life possible. Perfectionist philosophy can be traced back to ancient Greece and the writings of Plato and Aristotle, who both posited that justice and “the good” required cultivating virtues in human beings. From the perfectionist perspective, a central question is how does one structure a polity’s laws and institutions so as to cultivate citizens with the virtues necessary to lead the good life? For a perfectionist there is a virtuous circle in which a good society educates good citizens, who act virtuously, and in so doing maintain a just social order. Good citizens create good laws that in turn educate a new generation of good citizens.
The perfectionist tradition differs in a crucial way from two other great traditions of moral philosophy, the deontological and utilitarian. Deontological approaches assume that the right is independent of the good and assess the self’s actions in terms of moral obligations and duties. Utilitarian approaches take the question of the good as fundamental and derive principles of what is right from this sense of the good by assessing the consequences of the self’s actions rather than its motives. The central puzzle in both of these approaches is epistemological: how do we adjudicate which actions are justified?
Cavell claims that the deontological and utilitarian approaches to ethics overlook two crucial aspects. First, modern ethics remains captive to the epistemological. Both utilitarians and deontologists try to identify normative principles regarding the correct course of action. because the primary focus of ethics is on how we can know what the right thing to do is. Cavell suggests that perfectionism is a normative outlook that is dialogical rather than epistemological: I figure out how to overcome a normative crisis by responding to the ethical demands others place upon me. The second overlooked aspect is that whereas deontology and utilitarianism are concerned primarily with identifying the principles with which to restrain the self’s bad actions, perfectionism is interested in the conditions necessary to have a self. Perfectionism addresses a necessary prior problem for which any ethical theory must account: before determining what is right or good for the self to do, one must first work out who the self is. Perfectionist ethics thus involves determining “who am I?” Classic perfectionist slogans, such as Polonius’s dictum in Hamlet, “This above all: to thine own self be true” and Pindar’s “Become who you are” capture this idea eloquently. Perfectionists believe that since ethical crises arise when we are not true to ourselves, we must rediscover ourselves to overcome these challenges. Self-discovery is thus a necessary precursor to ethical action, and perfectionist ethics focuses on the cultivation of the soul.
Cavell marveled that contemporary professional philosophy has increasingly suppressed perfectionism. Ancient and medieval texts ranging from Plato and Aristotle to Boethius and Montaigne all grapple with ethics as a practice of self-fashioning. Yet after Descartes, philosophy increasingly represses these questions. As the deontological writings of Kant and Hegel and the utilitarian writings of Mill became hegemonic in Anglo-American philosophy departments, writers who raised perfectionist questions were increasingly dismissed as non-philosophical. Cavell therefore sought to recover perfectionism by presenting contemporary texts, ranging from the transcendentalist writings of Thoreau and Emerson to movies from Hollywood’s golden age, as examples of this alternative tradition. Cavell believed that the practice of philosophy needed to move away from the formalism of analytic approaches towards neo-classical approaches that emphasize philosophy as a way of life.
Two major charges that confront perfectionism in general are that they are illiberal and elitist. First, liberals critique perfectionism for positing a conception of the good as the ultimate end for both individuals and society. From a classical liberal perspective, perfectionism runs the risk of being paternalistic and neglectful of value pluralism. Second, John Rawls, in A Theory of Justice, argues that perfectionism is inherently elitist. Using Nietzsche as his foil, Rawls argues that perfectionist accounts of the good seek to reorient society towards promoting excellence in the arts, sciences, and culture. The concern here is that a society pursuing perfectionist ends may be willing to sacrifice individual autonomy to achieving these ends.
Cavell’s later work strives to develop an account of perfectionism that can respond to both of these charges. Synthesizing his interpretations of ordinary language philosophy, American transcendentalism, existentialism, Hollywood film, and Shakespearean tragedy, Cavell defends a form of perfectionism that he insists is pluralistic and democratic. It is pluralistic because the origin of the concept of the good does not come from any transcendental standard. Emersonian perfectionism instead asks that one turn inward to find “his privatest, secretest presentiment.” Cavell (following Emerson) believed that turning inward to find one’s standard of the good within oneself would lead to the discovery of “the most acceptable, the most public, and universally true.” The great threat in this variety of perfectionism is conforming to the community’s expectations of what is appropriate. Searching within oneself for what one believes to be true leads to reinventing both oneself and one’s society. Cavell calls this inward turn to discover the universal by exploring the subjective “[t]he philosophical appeal to the ordinary” (WU, 174). He claims that we make these appeals to the ordinary when we want to establish the meanings of words, when we want to explore the nature of our criteria, and when we wish to explore our ethical commitments.
What is striking for Cavell about these appeals is that they challenge “our commonality in favor of a more genuine commonality” (WU, 174). When we become dissatisfied with a commonly held set of values, we search within ourselves for a deeper truth that expresses the reasons for our dissatisfaction. By expressing our particular dissatisfaction with the way things are, we attempt to speak not just particularly but universally. Each of us thus has the capacity to renew our values. Cavell describes this facet of perfectionism as “the criticism of democracy from within” (CHU, 3). Since each person within a society has the capacity to critique the whole society by appealing to the ordinary within themselves, this strand of perfectionism is deeply egalitarian. Anyone can try to speak representatively for everyone, and anyone may rebuke such an attempt. Since the source of the good is the individual, there are as many potential versions of the good as there are people in a society. This variety of perfectionism is non-teleological. Democratic perfectionism never posits a single good for all individuals or society to strive for. It instead interprets all crises (of either self or society) as existential crises. According to democratic perfectionism, we experience a crisis because we do not know who we are. To overcome the crisis we must discover our next, unattained (but attainable) self by searching within ourselves and then striving to make those next selves a reality. This variety of perfectionism does not seek an end goal; it instead proposes an ethos for grappling with our existential crises with the realization that each newly attained self contains the seeds for future crises that will in turn demand further acts of self-overcoming.