The Sources of Liberal Normativity
Forthcoming in: Between Utopianism and Realism: The Political Thought of Judith Shklar (S. Ashendem and A. Hess, eds., 2019)
30 Pages Posted: 10 Oct 2018
Date Written: June 6, 2018
Many defenders of Shklar praise her “skepticism” and hold her to be a proponent of “anti-foundationalism” in political theory. Her embracing a lack of grounds, it is said, entails both the realm of justification and that of method. Her critics, on the other hand, believe this to be her greatest flaw: Either her skepticism hides a core of positive commitments, or it leads into “general claims of a relativistic nature.” Neither position appears to do justice to Shklar’s thought. This essay defends the position that Shklar was a skeptic, but not the type anti-foundationalists tend to assume, and that she did make universalist assertions, but in a way that shields her from some of the criticisms usually leveled at universalists. First, I will show, by way of the examination of an unpublished lecture, that Shklar does not share the epistemic skepticism of anti-foundationalism. Instead, her skepticism was political, dependent on a set of positive commitments that are exempt from epistemic doubt. Second, I will flesh out this difference by focusing on the connection between the methodology and content of her political theory. Finally, I will speculatively reconstruct three sources of normativity for her positive commitments from the last phase of her career. The first argues for physical pain as the normative basis of her holding cruelty to be the worst evil; the second maintains that Shklar’s phrase “fear of fear” can be read as a formal criterion able to historicize what is to be feared; and the third takes the articulation of a sense of injustice as a transcendental criterion that expands the liberalism of fear into a more activist political conception.
Keywords: Judith Shklar, anti-foundationalism, skepticism, liberalism
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