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The Spirit of Modesty*

  • Shaun P. Young (a1)

What is the principal function of political philosophy? This question has long been the source of discourse and debate, especially amongst those who practise this ancient art. For Ronald Beiner, the primary and proper function of political philosophy is, always has been, and forever will be, to expand our analytical horizons and thereby improve our ability to judge accurately the desirability and subsequent acceptability of our existing social order(s). Beiner contends, however, that contemporary theorists have so restricted the scope and focus of their investigations that political philosophy is no longer able to fulfil its intended function. This is a theme which has animated much of Beiner's recent work, and provides the foundation and focus for his book Philosophy in a Time of Lost Spirit: Essays on Contemporary Theory (PTS), the subject of this essay.

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1 It is extremely difficult to determine whether Beiner means to distinguish between his use of the terms “theory” and “philosophy”; he quite often seems to use them interchangeably. Hence I will do likewise.

2 I have borrowed this term from Patrick Neal. See his “Does He Mean What He Says? (Mis)Understanding Rawls–s Practical Turn” Polity, 27, 1 (1994): 77111, especially p. 84. Hereafter referred to as “Does He Mean What He Says?”

3 Simply put, an overlapping consensus is a consensus comprising all of the conflicting, irreconcilable, and incommensurable comprehensive religious, moral, and philosophical doctrines which are likely to survive in a just, constitutional democracy. See Rawls John, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), p. 15.

4 This is not to suggest that all contemporary liberal theorists argue for or necessarily support a distinctly Rawlsian overlapping consensus. Rather, I mean only that, regardless of the type or degree of autonomy and diversity they are promoting, contemporary liberal theorists, generally speaking, maintain that some type of “overlapping” consensus (e.g., one that incorporates a plurality of doctrines, even if it is only a plurality of “reasonable” doctrines) is required to achieve the desired autonomy and diversity.

5 I have included the term “unreasonably” in order to emphasize that most contemporary liberal theorists do not suggest that there should or can be no restrictions on the type of beliefs which should be tolerated.

6 By successfully I mean that one can effectively translate theory into public policy.

7 The term “practical” is used here to refer to doctrines whose goal it is to provide in some manner the theoretical framework for solutions to concrete problems.

8 Included within this list are such notable individuals as Bruce Ackerman, Sir Isaiah Berlin, Ronald Dworkin, Jürgen Habermas, Stuart Hampshire, Will Kymlicka, Charles Larmore, Thomas Nagel, Richard Rorty, and Michael Sandel.

9 I have emphasized the term “explicitly” because I believe that although Beiner may argue that his vision does not necessarily preclude the possibility of theory performing more than one function, it is very clear that Beiner assigns one overriding purpose to the practice of theory.

10 I use, as I believe Beiner does, the terms “radical” and “extreme” interchangeably.

11 In other words, liberals' choice to pursue an overlapping consensus and the synthesis of theory and practice does not coerce anyone else–s choice, nor does this choice prevent others from pursuing different goals.

12 Indeed, Beiner would probably also argue that because such theorizing preserves existing philosophical prejudices and restrictions, it actually precludes the identification of, and thus perpetuates, existing problems.

13 The term “certain” has been used here to emphasize the fact that Beiner–s definition of “radical” does not simply negate the validity of liberalism; rather, it negates the validity of any approach that happens to be reflective of the existing social order. Hence, for example, if one lived in a Marxist society, adherence to Beinerian theory would automatically dismiss the value and validity of Marxist political theory.

14 The “evidence” which follows this statement is by no means an exhaustive list of the reasons for claiming that Beinerian theory is more modest than contemporary liberal theory.

15 This conflict of demands is what Beiner refers to as the “dualism” of theory and practice (p. ix).

16 Beiner agrees with Hans-Georg Gadamer–s assertion that theoretical wisdom cannot help individuals to “‘grasp . . . [particular] “circumstances” in their infinite variety’” (p. 87).

17 Beiner associates phronesis with a number of terms including “practical wisdom,” “prudence,” “practical judgement,” and “practical reason” (pp. 176,180). Hence, I will, as Beiner has done, use all of these terms to refer to the concept of phronesis.

18 Practical wisdom is acquired “at the moment when . . . [one] concretizes his or her abstract understanding of ethical requirements in particular situations” (p. 180).

19 To exemplify this point, Beiner (paraphrasing Hans-Georg Gadamer) employs the following statement: “science may be disciplined byphronesis, but phronesis cannot be disciplined by science” (p. 177).

20 The fact that when Beiner speaks of the immodesty of liberalism he is referring only to its goal of uniting theory and practice does not diminish or negate the immodesty of the endeavour.

21 Beiner states that it is not the place of theory “to offer immediate guidance on questions of policy” (p. 198, n.30).

22 Beiner asserts that “our intellectual world would be radically impoverished if the great critics within the tradition [of Western thought] had been merely Swiss and German clones of John Stuart Mill” (p. xi; emphasis in original).

23 Holmes Stephen, The Anatomy of Antiliberalism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), p. 138. For example, Beiner agrees with Jean-Jacques Rousseau–s contention that religious fanaticism is superior to liberalism because “insofar as it [religious fanaticism] is a source of ‘grand and strong passion which elevates the heart of man,’ [it] is to be preferred to the deadening effect of bourgeois [e.g., liberal] rationality, which pacifies the human spirit as it domesticates the passions” (p. 135).

24 Anderson Charles, Pragmatic Liberalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), p. xi.

25 Bell Daniel, “The Limits of Liberal Justice,” Political Theory, 26 (1998): 557–82, especially p. 572.

26 Neal , “Does He Mean What He Says?, p. 84.

27 I would like to thank Catherine Bird, Triadafilos Triadafilopoulos, Leah Bradshaw, Peter Trnka, and an anonymous referee for Dialogue for their helpful comments and suggestions.

* Ronald Beiner, Philosophy in a Time of Lost Spirit: Essays on Contemporary Theory (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997), xiv + 240 pp., $24.95 paper. Page references are to this work.

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Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review / Revue canadienne de philosophie
  • ISSN: 0012-2173
  • EISSN: 1759-0949
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