Putnam and Cavell on the Ethics of Democracy


Temple University

Two of America's most prominent philosophers, Hilary Putnam and Stanley Cavell, have recently focused their attention on the question of democracy, studying the arguments for its justification and reconciling its defense with the claims of individual s elf-perfection. Both Putnam and Cavell explore democracy not in terms of its concrete rules and political institutions, but rather as an ethical ideal that is central to what they regard as the primal philosophical question, "how to live?" Thus Cavell advocates "the life of philosophy" for its "power to change people" by teaching them to live better; while Putnam declares that "the role of philosophical reflection at its best" is "to change both our lives and the way we see our lives," since "we all have the potential of thinking for ourselves with respect to the question of How to Live."'

This, of course, was the burning question of nineteenth century Harvardbred thinkers like Emerson and Thoreau, who avidly pursued it not only in theory but through adventurous experiments in living (such as Walden). Faithful to this tradition of construing life as the central philosophical project, Cavell and Putnam chide professional philosophers for ignoring it to concentrate on metaphysical issues that have virtually no impact on how one lives.

By affirming philosophy's practical orientation to the problems of life, Putnam and Cavell are likewise true to the spirit of pragmatism. Both are especially inspired by Dewey's ethics of democracy and self-realization. But by criticizing its alleged limitations, each attempts a better theory of the democratic philosophical life. To continue this project of reconstructive pragmatist meliorism, I hope to show where their own theories, as well as Dewey's, require revision and amplification. I begin with Putnam, who, unlike Cavell, firmly identifies himself with pragmatism.


Putnam's defense of democracy is explicitly built on two Deweyan lines of argument that he characterizes as social and epistemological. The social line of argument helps combat the kind of skepticism about democracy that derives from a demand for "absolute" justification, one that would justify democracy in terms of "the world as it is independent of our experience" (RP, p. 81).2 Dewey's pragmatism--with its insistence that knowledge is always situated and has impact on the plastic, changing universe--rejects the very idea of such an absolute point of view.

There is thus no possibility and no need to justify democracy in terms of something beyond the experience and values that situated members of a community already share. Justification of democracy is always already social, addressed to a community and based on its values. It aims at "giving reason to people already disposed to hear it, to help in continually creating a community held together by that same disposition." It is, as Putnam says, "addressed to us as opposed to being addressed to each 'me' " (RP, p. 183). Moreover, the values to which it appeals are essentially social in a further sense: being values of intelligent discourse and action, rather than mere values of physical or psychic fitness (metaphorically described by Bernard Williams as the "ethological standard of the bright eye and the gleaming coat," (RP, p. 182).

Complementing this "social justification" is what Putnam calls Dewey's "epistemological justification of democracy," a line of argument that similarly issues from pragmatism's insistence that knowledge (and indeed the very notion of reality) depends on a community of inquirers.3 Putnam formulates the claim like this: "Democracy is not just one form of social life among other workable forms of social life; it is the precondition for the full application of intelligence to the solution of social problems" (RP, p. 180). How is this strong claim supported?

The argument's first premise, Putnam maintains, is that "epistemology is hypothesis." Experience has shown that knowledge of the world, including the world of value, is best achieved not through apriorism or acceptance of authority but through "intelligently conducted inquiry," which includes the formation of hypotheses and their testing in experimentation (RP, p. 186). Second, the social condition that promotes the fullest capacities of forming and testing hypotheses is surely a free collaborative community of inquirers exchanging their different points of view and results.

Hence "the need for such fundamental democratic institutions as freedom of thought and speech follows, for Dewey, from requirements of scientific procedure in general: the unimpeded flow of information and the freedom to offer and to criticize hypotheses" (RP, p. 188). For Dewey such freedom means positive freedom or real empowerment to apply one's thought to the government of self and society. Democracy means active participation by all, rather than simply leaving questions of governance to experts who are entrusted with the job of ensuring the freedoms and benefits that we wish to enjoy from society.

Dewey can defend his participationist model of democracy over the consumerist one of expert-governance by again employing his epistemological justification. Despite their specialist knowledge, experts do not know everything relevant to the direction of society, and therefore good government needs the participation of all members of society. All these different members, through their diverse situations, possess differently situated knowledge that needs to be heard so as to ensure not only a wider range of hypotheses about how to direct society but also a wider range of criticisms and experiences of those hypotheses that are actually tested. As Putnam states Dewey's argument, since the materials used to assess and improve democracy "cannot be circumscribed in advance, . . . there is no one field of experience [or one class of people] from which all the considerations relevant to the evaluation of democracy come" (RP, p. 189).

Dewey was particularly suspicious of the "cognitive distortion" produced by the privilege of experts: "A class of experts is inevitably so removed from common interests as to become a class with private interests and private knowledge, which in social matters is not knowledge at all," since it fails to see the experience and interests of other sections of society. "All special privilege narrows the outlook of those who possess it."4 The argument that experts rule best gets its power by assuming that they know best, that they possess more than all others all the necessary knowledge for governing society. But this in turn assumes that we know what that necessary knowledge is, that we know, for example, what our essential human nature, needs, and capabili \ties are. "In contrast," Putnam asserts with Dewey, "we don't know what our interests and needs are or what we are capable of until we actually engage in politics. A corollary of this view is that there can be no final answer to the question of how we should live, and therefore we should always leave it open to further discussion and experimentation. That is precisely why we need democracy" (RP, p. 189, WL, p. 217).


Although endorsing Dewey's "social philosophy" of democracy as "overwhelmingly right," Putnam finds his "moral philosophy" inadequate for treating "problems of individual choice" that are central to the core ethical issue of how to live (RP, p. 190). The problems Putnam has in mind are those "individual existential choices" of the kind evoked by Sartre's famous character Pierre (in Existentialism and Humanism), who confronts the agonizing choice between joining the Resistance (and thus leaving his aged mother alone on the farm) or remaining with his mother (and forsaking the Resistance).

Such "problems of individual choice" cannot just be handled like "social problems" of collaborative empirical problem-solving, where we aim "to 'maximize" the good" by choosing the best solution in terms of "estimated utilities." For it is not a question here of obtaining general social consequences that are good but rather of what is good or "right" for the individual (RP, p. 190).5 Such decisions cannot be determined by scientific method but instead require an "existential" act of freedom or leap of faith beyond any available evidence. As Putnam forcefully puts it:

Someone who acts only when the "estimated utilities" are favorable does not live a meaningful human life. Even if I choose to do something of whose ethical and social value there is absolutely no doubt, say, to devote my life to comforting the dying, or helping the mentally ill, or curing the sick, or relieving poverty, I still have to decide not whether it is good that someone should do that thing, but whether it is good that I, Hilary Putnam, do that thing. The answer to that question cannot be a matter of well-established scientific fact, in however generous a sense of "scientific." (RP, p. 194)

Putnam therefore turns to William James who famously argued that with crucial, pressing personal questions (e.g., religious faith) one has the right to exercise the will to believe "in advance of the evidence" (RP, p. 192). Seeing this Jamesian voluntarist idea reflected in Sartre's and Kierkegaard's views of existentialist self-creation, of "becoming who [one] . . . is," Putnam endorses it as the best model for addressing the personal ethics of how to live (RP, p. 191).6 Dewey's failure to recognize such individual ethics is explained as resulting from a "dualistic conception of human goods" that divides between a social-ethical dimension expressed in terms of rational collaboration and, on the other hand, an aesthetic dimension where the individual finally finds expression but only through her private "consummatory experience."

For Dewey there are fundamentally two, and only two, dominant dimensions to human life: the social dimension, which for Dewey meant the struggle for a better society, and the release of human potential; and the aesthetic dimension. To the criticism that he fundamentally saw all of life as social action, Dewey could and did always reply that, on the contrary, in the last analysis he saw all "consummatory experience" as aesthetic. The trouble with this answer is that a bifurcation of goods into social goods which are attained through the use of instrumental rationality and consummatory experiences which are ultimately aesthetic is too close to the positivist or empiricist division of life into the prediction and control of experiences and the enjoyment of experiences to be adequate. (RP, p. 196)

That Dewey's "conception of human goods" involves a rigid dualism between the social and the aesthetic--the one concerned with improving society through scientific rationality while the other concerned simply with private consummatory experience--is a very troubling charge. It is particularly troubling since Dewey's declared pragmatist agenda was to overcome such divisions between science and culture, society and the self, instrumentality and art. But any socio-aesthetic dualism can be refuted by looking more carefully at Dewey's aesthetics and highlighting an important argument for democracy that Putnam ignores, one I shall call the aesthetic justification for democracy. Before taking this up, we should appreciate the full force of Putnam's claim that neglecting the individual ethics of how to live is not merely a minor omission in a theory of democracy, but a central gap that would undermine the whole democratic project of modernity.


Putnam draws a useful distinction between three basic conceptions of equality in premodern Western culture (all seen to be inspired by "the Jerusalem based religions") and the modem conception established by Kant. The former, Putnam formulates as follows:

(I) There is something about human beings, some aspect which is of incomparable moral significance, with respect to which all human beings are equal, no matter how unequal they may be in talents, achievements, social contribution, etc.

(II) Even those who are least talented, or whose achievements are the least, or whose contribution to society is the least, are deserving of respect.

(III) Everyone's happiness or suffering is of equal prima facie moral importance. (MFR, p.45)

In all three of these traditional conceptions, Putnam notes, "the value of equality does not have much to do with individual freedom" and "can be reconciled with various sorts of totalitarianism" (MFR, pp. 46, 51). One can easily imagine a totalitarian theocracy urging and interpreting these equalities in terms of "divine human nature" and then repressively limiting freedom so that this divine nature and its promise of eternal happiness and salvation are not perverted by ungodly temptations. One can imagine secular totalitarianisms making similar moves to ensure "equality." In contrast, Putnam argues, Kant gives a radically new "content to the notion of equality . . . that builds liberty into equality." Human autonomy, for Kant, means more than free will and our capacity for reason. It is also "the idea that we have the further freedom that we have no knowledge of a fixed end of what human happiness is," since abstract reason cannot determine the content of "an inclusive human end that we should all seek (unless it be morality itself, and this is not an end that can determine the content of morality" [MFR, pp. 46, 491). Our choice of how to live is therefore not predetermined or constrained by any knowledge of the essence of human nature, function, or happiness.

Consequently, as Foucault also noted,7 Kant urged the enlightenment maxim Aude sapere: dare to know by daring to think for yourself. And this need to think for ourselves is likewise where we find a particularly modern democratic conception of equality that also implies freedom. Since we all have to think for ourselves without prior knowledge of what human essence and happiness are, this ability to think becomes "itself the most valuable fact about our lives. That is the characteristic with respect to which we are all equals. We are all in the same predicament, and we all have the potential of thinking for ourselves with respect to the question of How to Live" (MFR, p. 50). This "is not just a virtue but . . . the most significant moral capacity that we have," one whose denial in an individual would mean that the denied "has failed to live a fully human life" (MFR, pp. 61-62).

If equality is defined in such terms of free thinking about how to live, then constraints on that freedom would threaten democracy's claim to equality as well as to liberty. And if ethics were simply a question of social planning in which collaborativ e inquiry by the group provides the knowledge that determines all decisions about how to live, then there would no longer be freedom for the individual to choose how to become who he is. Such an ethics would be inconsistent with modern democracy.

These are the deep worries that spur Putnam to attack Dewey for refusing individual ethics through a bifurcation of the social and aesthetic. But we can dispel such fears and allegations by recognizing what I call Dewey's aesthetic justification for democracy, a justification based on the strongly personal yet social aesthetic satisfactions that democracy provides when pursued as "a personal way of individual life" (LW 14:226).

We should first remember that Dewey's aesthetics denies any dichotomy between social instrumentality and aesthetic consummatory experience. I develop these points in Pragmatist Aesthetics, but let me relate them briefly here. In contrast to the dominant Kantian tradition that defines the aesthetic in opposition to practical interest, Dewey celebrates the embodied interest and wide-ranging "instrumental function" of aesthetic experience whose stimulating energy both enriches present activity and overflows into other tasks (AE, pp. 140, 144). Moreover, in contrast to a privatistic aesthetic, he insists that art's experience is essentially social and communicative: "since it is constituted . . . by the common qualities of the public world," art is a communicative "remaking of the experience of the community in the direction of grea ter order and unity" (AE, pp. 87, 275).

Finally, Dewey insists on the ethical dimension of aesthetics, that "art is more moral than moralities" (AE, p. 350). Aesthetic imagination is always suggesting ideals higher than those of conventional morality, new visions or models of life beyond those the individual has encountered in real life but to which she can aspire in addressing the question of how to live. As if to answer Putnam's worry about the need to go "in advance of the evidence," Dewey declares that art fosters our "sense of purposes that outrun evidence and of meanings that transcend indurated habit," such purposes and meanings enriching the experiencing self both aesthetically and ethically (AE, p. 350).

If aesthetics is not in opposition to the social, instrumental, and ethically personal, Dewey can develop an aesthetic justification for democracy based on the idea of enriched experience and self-realization. It involves three related lines of argument. The first is this. Any individual of a community is a social individual, who thus has needs, habits, and desires associated with and affected by communal life. Therefore, the individual's free and active participation in democratic life--in the social business of directing associated life as well as in the protection and government of her own personal freedom--will make her experience and self much richer and more interesting than if she had no opportunity to participate in the government of self and society. Since democracy provides better opportunity for the free and equal partic ipation of more individuals in government, it can provide them a richer life and is thus superior. As Dewey puts it: "Only by participating in the common intelligence and sharing in the common purpose as it works for the common good can individual human beings realize their true individualities," and the "self which is formed through action which is faithful to relations with others will be a fuller and broader self than one which is cultivated in isolation" from them (LSA, p. 20, E, p. 302).

The second aesthetic justification is closely related. If nothing is "as fulfilling and as rewarding as is concerted consensus of action," then since participatory democracy promotes such action it should be valued and pursued for the experiential satisfactions such action brings. Democracy, like communication, "is consummatory as well as instrumental," and "shared experience is the greatest of human goods" (EN, pp. 145, 157). The third argument appeals again to the aesthetic idea of personal, experiential enrichment, but develops it through democracy's respect for difference and the right of every individual to have and develop her distinctive perspective on life. Democracy's advocacy of the free and equal (though not necessarily identical) participation of all different types of people in the direction of community life greatly enriches the experience of each. It not only provides the spice of variety and novelty, but gives the individual a heightened sense of her own distinct perspective and identity. "To cooperate by giving differences a chance to show themselves because of the belief that the expression of difference is not only a right of the other persons but is a means of enriching one's own life-experience, is inherent in the democratic person al way of life" (LW 14:228).

In defining democracy by the aim that "further experience will grow in ordered richness," and in recognizing that this pursuit will be guided by "need and desire" that go "beyond knowledge, beyond science," Dewey embraces not only an aesthetic justification but also an aesthetic ideal of democracy that affirms the role of personal ethics and life-choices in advance of the evidence. "Democracy, as a personal, an individual, way of life" demands "a working faith in the possibilities of human nature," the same sort of will to believe that Putnam appeals to in James (LW 14:226, 229). It also requires faith in one's (and others?) aesthetic sense of which existential choices will make a richer but still unified self. These choices of the self, Dewey insists, cannot be legislated by the group for the individual on the basis of scientific findings about social utilities; they are rather a function of one's particular needs and desires. Explicitly linking democratic theory to aesthetics, Dewey claims that just as significant aesthetic wholes must be "constituted by parts that are themselves significant," so "no significant community can exist save as it is composed of individuals who are significant" (AE, pp. 207-208).

Blind to this aesthetic justification of democracy, Putnam falsely condemns Dewey for a bifurcation of the social and the aesthetic that leaves no room for a personal ethics of self-creation. Like Rorty, he wrongly identifies Dewey's democratic project with the procedural, institutional democratic theory of John Rawls. But while Rorty finds such a public-democratic/ private-aesthetic dualism convenient for aestheticizing the ethics of self's Putnam resists this aestheticism and instead looks to James and existentialism to find a place for individual ethics that defies the alleged Deweyan dichotomy of the social and aesthetic. However, just as the aesthetic/social, aesthetic/ethical, and aesthetic/instrumental dualisms are false, so is the dualism of social/individual. The individual, as Dewey insisted, is always already social. Even one's most private thoughts and personal dilemmas reflect the voices of society one has internalized, which does not, for all that, preclude one's freedom.9

Putnam may have overlooked the individual dimension of Deweyan democratic ethics, because Dewey does tend to highlight the social--insisting not only on the social construction of the self but also on the essentially social nature of its self-realization. Although advocating individual "self-realization as the moral ideal," he argued that the individual self is best fulfilled not by consciously attending to its individuality, but by instead attending to the social relations and shared concerns that shape and enrich the self in forming its interacting environment. "Self-realization may be the end" but preoccupation with self is not the way to achieve it. For "to make self-realization a conscious aim might and probably would prevent full attention to those very relationships which bring about the wider development of the self" (E, p. 302).

Hence Dewey's recommendation for individual fulfillment in democracy is not to cultivate consciously one's distinctive self but to enrich it by concentrating on shared interests and "objects that contribute to the enrichment of the lives of all" (E, pp. 302-3). This does not deny individual expression in lifestyles, since differences in our talents, situations, and inclinations will make for distinctive contributions to the society and values we share. Nor does it mean that every life must be devoted to politics, since the realm of shared interests is much wider. But it does militate against extreme concentration on the self's personal distiflction and more private gratifications.

Dewey practiced the ethic he preached, translating his personal quest for self-fulfillment into the social struggle for a more democratic society and systematically sublimating (perhaps even repressing) his more private concerns and desires. If his life proved that distinctive self-realization is consistent with selfless social action, it fails to entail that this is the best or only way for self-perfection today. Nor does it really prove that democratic self-realization must always eschew the cult of selfhood. If contemporary society is more fragmented, selfish, and privatistic than in Dewey's day, then self-realization may more likely succeed by taking a more privatist turn. This is Rorty's conclusion, reinforced by the fear that attempts to force a unity of social and personal good will lead either to repressive self-denial or oppressive imposition of one's personal authority on others.

Forsaking Dewey's union of democracy and the ethics of self, Rorty consigns democracy to the merely external role of protecting our freedom to pursue private, aesthetic self-fulfillment. Sharing Rorty's concern for individualism and failing to see it satisfied in Dewey's democratic theory, Putnam instead seeks a way to connect the projects of self-creation and democracy. He does so by seeing self-creation as expressing the basic equality that modern democracy must guarantee: freedom of thought about how to live.

However, given the basic tensions between freedom and equality that Putnam (like Dewey) recognizes, this strategy seems far too thin to unite the quests for democracy and self-fulfillment. The value of thinking for oneself does not entail the value of thinking primarily about one's distinctive self. Dewey's worry remains: preoccupation with distinctive selfhood not only impoverishes the self but also deprives others of care and weakens the social bonds of democracy. To relieve this worry there seems no better place to turn than to Stanley Cavell's ingenious ethics of democracy, whose arguments share Dewey's strategies but surpass them.


Cavell's 1988 Carus Lectures on "Emersonian perfectionism" seek to reconcile the ideals of self-realization and democracy that together constitute the core of the American dream. Emerson's advocacy of independent, nonconformist, self-perfection (one that inspired Nietzsche's elitist Übermensch) must therefore be shown to be consistent with democracy's egalitarian concern for good and justice for all. But Cavell (like Dewey and Putnam) wants more than mere consistency through compartmentalization. He wants the deep, essential integration of democracy and self-realization. In defending the conscious cultivation of distinctive self-perfection, his ambitious goal "is not simply to show that it is tolerable to the life of justice in a constitutional democracy but to show how it is essential to that life" (CH, p. 56). How, then?

Put most briefly, perfectionism is "essential to the criticism of democracy from within" by providing the sort of caring, demanding, critical, self improving individuals who can best guarantee that the institutions and practitioners of democracy will not rest content with the always imperfect justice and improvable good they provide. Cavell develops his argument through a critique of Rawls's seminal account of democracy as essentially a matter of institutional rules and procedures for administering justice. Praising Rawls's formulation of the general principles by which constitutional democracy can both administer justice and criticize its failures to do so "from within" its principled framework, Cavell nonetheless insists that perfectionism is also "essential to the criticism of democracy from within," and he contests Rawls's rejection of perfectionism as "inherently undemocratic or elitist" (CH, p. 3).

Formulated in his distinctive writerly style, Cavell's arguments resist clear summary. Yet the main lines seem to be these. First, perfectionism is necessary because institutions and principles are only as strong, just, and effective as the individuals who animate, apply, and criticize them. Only perfectionism can build the "character to keep the democratic hope alive in the face of disappointment with it" (CH, p. 56). This is precisely Dewey's argument about why democracy must be practiced as a personal, individual way of life: "democratic institutions are no guarantee for the existence of democratic individuals ... [while] individuals who are democratic in thought and action are the sole final warrant for the existence and endurance of democratic institutions" (LW 14:92).

Second, to rely simply on institutional principles of justice allows us to become complacent about the injustices, brutalities, and waste of human opportunities that, given the complexities and scarcities of the world, are not excluded by mere compliance to the principles of justice. Cavell thus contests Rawls's idea that by correctly following these principles we could live "above reproach" (CH, p. 18)." The perfectionist will never be satisfied with himself and the system as long as any injustice or misery exists. Reproaching himself and the system for not doing better, he will constantly struggle to better himself and others. Democracy, if it is to realize the best justice possible, needs this vigilance and supererogation.

Finally, Rawls sees perfectionism as a fixed teleological principle "directing society to arrange institutions and to define the duties and obligations of individuals so as to maximize the achievement of human excellence" in some particular set of valued domains.11 But Emersonian perfectionism, Cavell argues, is no institutional principle promoting some fixed hierarchy of ends; it is rather an individual ethical injunction to strive to be better and do so by being always open to exploring the claims of different ends.

These critiques of Rawls's institutionalism again reflect Dewey's democratic ethics of the self, whose ideal of continual growth and self-perfection spurns complacency as intrinsically immoral and refuses the very notion of a fixed set of final ends that would set a limit to growth. Like Dewey, though clearly more inspired by Emerson, Cavell advocates a dynamic self directed at self-improvement and (through this) at the improvement of society. Constantly in the making, the self should always be striving toward a higher "unattained yet attainable self" "To recognize the unattained self. . . is a step in attaining it," but the process of striving is never completed: not because we never reach the next or higher self, but because in reaching it, we should always see yet another next, still higher self to reach for (CH, p. 12).

Self-perfection, as "a process of moving to, and from, nexts," demands real courage. Not only must it overcome habit and fear's "resistance to internal change," but it must also face the unpleasant fact that we need radical improvement (CH, pp. 12, 16). For Cavell, this borders on self-loathing. "Emersonian Perfectionism requires that we become ashamed in a particular way of ourselves" so as to consecrate ourselves to our next selves and a better society. It involves "an expression of disgust with or a disdain for the present state of things so complete as to require not merely reform, but a call for a transformation of things, and before all a transformation of the self--a call that seems so self-absorbed and obscure as to make morality impossible." Replying to the apparent immorality of such self-perfecting self-absorption, Cavell questions: "what is the moral life apart from acting beyond the self and making oneself intelligible to those beyond it (CH, pp. 16, 46).

In linking self-transcendence with intelligibility to others, Cavell deploys a Deweyan strategy for countering the radical opposition of self and society. The self must be seen as essentially dialogical and structured by the society it shares. Informed not only by society's shared language but also by the different voices it has heard and internalized, the self cannot fulfill and understand itself without regard for others. "Becoming intelligible to oneself may accordingly present itself as discovering which among the voices contending to express your nature are ones for you to own here, now" (CH, p. xxxvi). Moreover, the self can define its own distinctiveness only by its relations of contrast and connection with others.

Hence perfectionism's preoccupation with self, its demand for "absolute responsibility of the self to itself," is not aimed at narcissistic isolation. It instead calls for "responsibility of the self to itself, by way of others," "through endless specification [of the self], by way of exemplification, in the world (of and with others)." Cavell calls this "the absolute responsibility of the self to make itself intelligible, without falsifying itself' (CH, p. xxvii).

Such general arguments for the conceptual interdependence of self and society hardly dissolve all conflict between perfectionist cultivation of individualism and the claims of democratic community. They could not dispel Dewey's fear that democratic self-realization will only be stunted by taking one's own self (rather than one's environing community) as the conscious end-in-view. Yet by applying Dewey's own epistemological and aesthetic arguments, Cavell can make a strong case that democracy is excellently served by self-absorbed perfectionism. The idea, in a nutshell, is that the struggle to perfect one's individuality and exemplify it in the social world will provide our democratic community with attractive models that recommend both why democracy is worth having and how it may be improved and enriched.

Epistemologically, perfectionism serves the democratic search for better life and greater justice by offering three related resources: an inspiring example of untiring meliorism, specific hypotheses about how best to live, and critique of such hypotheses. Perfectionism's relentless demand for selfimprovement gives an exemplary standard and spur to improving the society in which the self is found. Not only does it build the "character to keep the democratic hope alive" in the face of disappointment, but it offers a potent way of recognizing the value of other selves by its privileging of the unattained, next self who is, as yet, another. Thus "recognizing my differences from others [is] a function of recognizing my differences from myself' (CH, p. 53). Since self-growth and intelligibility require acknowledging others, self-perfection should promote social change toward a more democratic "human" order. Perfectionism means being

open to the further self, in oneself and in others; which means, holding on eself in knowledge of the need for change; which means, being one who lives in promise, as a sign, or representative human, which in turn means expecting oneself to be, making oneself, intelligible as an inhabitant now also of a further realm . . . , call this the realm of the human--and to show oneself prepared to recognize others as belonging there. (CH, p. 125)

Cultivation of individualistic self-realization also serves democracy by providing the community with a wealth of different life-hypotheses of how to live. The democratic community is involved in a search for better ways to live and to provide greater justice. By refusing to conform to conventional ways of living, but instead consciously cultivating one's individual distinction and exemplifying it in the world, perfectionists provide their fellow citizens with new models or experiments of good living, whose value is tested through their lives, thus advancing democracy's "conversation of justice" (CH, pp. 24-5)."

Through his nonconformist, heightened sense of self, the perfectionist makes himself representative of a very particular way of life, developing his own special "partiality," since there are always different ways of living that might, for some, be better, and our finitude means we can only live in some partial way. By presenting their distinctive lifestyles, perfectionists offer alternatives to conventional life that we might adapt and apply to our own conditions. Still better, they could inspire us "to let their foundings of partiality challenge us to find our own." Others thus stand for selves we have not yet recognized or achieved; they represent "our beyond" (CH, pp. 58, 126).

Finally, perfectionism offers the democratic community an immanent critique of its various visions of the good life. Each partial life of self-perfection constitutes an implicit critique not only of any universal claim of other perfectionist partialities, but especially of the necessity and value of conformity to the conventional. Such critique by exemplars of difference seems especially democratic since it works not by appeal to some absolute end or fixed standard that denies our freedom to choose the life we think more perfect. Instead the exemplar's critical force derives from its aesthetic appeal, its attraction over other ways of living. The aim is not to refute the other's way of living, "but to manifest for the other another way."

The manner of persuasion is similarly aesthetic; here discursive "moral justifications come to an end and something is to be shown"--the superior appeal of such a life (especially in contrast to the misery that complacent principles of "good enough justice" still allow). Here, ethical "constraint names, in the place of the Kantian "ought,' a form of attraction, the relation to the friend [another or further self]; and judgement is backed not by a standard (a moral law, a principle of justice) but fronted by the character of the judger" whose power is the attraction of the life and self he both displays and strives for (CH, pp. xxix-xxx, 31, 124).

As aesthetics figures centrally in our assessment and adoption of the best ways to live, so it also affords an argument for encouraging individualistic self-cultivation in democracy. Besides a greater range of useful hypotheses for living, individualism offers self and society the pleasures of rich variety and distinctive difference: "separateness of position is to be allowed its satisfactions" (CH, p. 25).

Although employing these very arguments for individual self-realization, Dewey still cautioned against its conscious cultivation, advocating instead that self-realization should be sought in selflessly attending to other things. Emerson made the same case for indirection in self-perfection. "I like not the man who is thinking how to be good, but the man thinking how to accomplish his work."" Yet Cavell may have an argument why this strategy will not succeed. If the motor for self-perfection is self-critique that results in deep shame or self-loathing, then, unless we examine ourselves closely and constantly, this shame will not surface and constantly prod us toward perfection.

Cavell's argument of why self-improvement requires self-absorption is presented as an absolute claim, as true for the ancients as for contemporaries. But even if historicized, it can still be effective, perhaps even more convincing." For Dewey, who grew up with the Congregationalist ideal of selfless service and a deeply entrenched religious sense of guilt, the meliorative habit and sense of community may have seemed sufficiently strong to motivate self-perfection through social service. For seculars steeped in postmodern fragmentation and skepticism about progress, Cavell may be right that only intense concentration on oneself can generate a strong enough drive for continuous improvement.

But whether this drive must be fueled by shame and self-loathing is not clear. Narcissism and heroism, which run deep in the history of philosophical life, are also strong motives, even if egalitarian democrats may not want to face this. Indeed, Cavell's perfectionism can be seen as a form of democratic heroism in which self-cultivation encourages us to ever greater efforts to respect the difference, claims, and suffering of others, even if these labors take the form of pursuit of our own further self who is represented in others as "our beyond."


Cavell's reconciliation of self-cultivation and democracy is extremely ingenious: self-absorbed perfectionism entails concerned respect for others since they are implied in the self's unattained but attainable further self. But will this strategy work? Does perfectionist self-cultivation really make us more democratic or is it, as Rorty thinks, indifferent to the question of democracy and therefore in need of relegation to the private sphere? Since neither conceptual inference nor controlled experimentation seem real options here, how indeed do we determine this issue? One is tempted to assess Cavell's theory by its own aesthetic standards of attraction, not simply as an abstract line of argument, but (as he puts it) by its "exemplification" in the philosophical life he leads. Has his own cultivation of individual perfection made him more democratic? Is Cavell an "exemplar" whose attraction constrains and inspires us to take a similar (though, given our own individuality, also a somewhat different) course of self-absorbed self-cultivation?

These questions clearly call for ad hominem arguments,15 which academic philosophy, as any freshman knows, has firmly outruled as invalid. But if philosophy is viewed as recommending a way to live, such arguments can not be dismissed; a philosopher's theory of living can surely be assessed in terms of the actual life it inspires. But if valid and important, how should ad hominem considerations be pursued? How available is a philosopher's actual life, and how far is it reasonable and moral to probe it? Do we need investigative reporters and private detectives to assess a philosophy of life?

Although he never directly raises such questions, Cavell's account of philosophical living suggests an answer to them. It is embo died in his advocacy of a tool of democratic self-perfection that he rightly criticizes Dewey for neglecting: the transformative activities of writing and reading. Compelling us to go beyond what we already are by expressing something new, writing drives us toward our unattained but attainable self. And, in so showing the importance of this other self, it helps us to appreciate the value of others. Conversely, reading compels us to consider thoughts we had not previously attained, thus inducing not only recognition of the other selves who wrote them but also that of our own further self who, by embracing them, is enriched. Cavell thus makes writing and reading the essence of the philosophical life of self-perfection. Speaking as much for himself as for his heroes Emerson and Thoreau, Cavell insists that the philosopher's "writing is part of his living, an instance of the life of philosophy" "his writing is this life." Or, since writing and reading are simply "variations" of each other, we can say "the interplay of writing and reading is what he claims as his philosophy" (IQ, pp. 10, 18; CH, p. 42).16

In highlighting philosophical textuality as a valuable means for democratic self-perfection, Cavell marks a real advance on Dewey. But even if we regard textual activity as important as more overt democratic action, one should not take it as an adequate substitute for the latter. Otherwise, Cavell's textualist advance on Dewey would be a grave regression. It may, in any case, reflect philosophy's retreat from more robust praxis. His emphasis on textual activity conveys (as it atones for) the admission that philosophy's true target is the ideal "city of words" (CH, pp. 7-8) rather than the direction of actual community life. Dewey was not ready to concede this, but his confidence in philosophy's public leadership is now much harder to share, thou gh perhaps not quixotic in all domains.17

Construing democratic self-perfection as an essentially textual way of life might help answer the ad hominem questions raised above. It suggests both a criterion for assessing the attraction of a philosophical life and a way of limiting what in that life should be relevant for such assessment. If the philosopher's life is expressed primarily in his writing, then the attraction of that exemplified life must also be exemplified in that writing. So if the persuasiveness of a philosophy of life is in the attraction of the life lived, this in turn is in the appeal of the life as written. No wonder Cavell has turned to "autobiographical exercises" as in A Pitch of Philosophy.

But there is danger of grave confusion here, because the notions of writing and its attraction have a very distinctive meaning for Cavell. Writing, for him, is not merely the formulation of texts and ideas but a deeply personal, ethical work of self-critique and self-transformation. It is (in Pierre Hadot's sense) a spiritual exercise or askesis on one's actual self's If one's writings transcend one's self, it is only because they transcend it by moving toward a higher self toward which they also bring the actual, living self; it is not because they constitute a higher, merely textual persona that is only causally connected with the concrete, embodied person who writes.

Similarly, for Cavell, the attraction of writing cannot mean the easy charm of an appealing writing style like, say, that of William James. Otherwise, Cavell's philosophy would stand condemned by its own criterion. In contrast, the self-conscious difficulty of Cavell's writing aims not to flatter the reader's taste (or Cavell's own) but rather to challenge it and thus engage both self and reader more deeply so as to effect the aim of self-transformation.

If one challenged his "aversive," difficult style as an obstacle to democracy's egalitarian aims, Cavell could counter that an imposed accessibility or easy style would be false to the struggle for self-knowledge and self-transcendence that is equally central to democracy's project. He might further argue that even apparently obscure and difficult texts (like Wittgenstein's) can reach a wide audience and be effective on various levels of understanding. Indeed, despite its uncompromising, often tortured style, Cavell's own work has enjoyed a wide reception outside academic philosophy.

The idea of simply perfecting and presenting oneself as a beautifully written text would be condemned by Cavell as a debased perfectionism. But such a vision of philosophical life has indeed been proposed, most strikingly in Alexander Nehamas's Nietzsche: Life as Literature. Here "Nietzsche himself. . . is none other than the character [his] very texts constitute." His philosophical life has nothing to do "with the miserable little man who wrote them but with the philosopher who emerges through them, the magnificent character those texts constitute and manifest."19 The whole life of philosophy, the philosopher's very substance, becomes a merely literary affair--no doubt a seductively flattering and cozy conclusion for academic philosophers after the linguistic turn, especially for those of us with literary pretensions.

But Nietzsche himself can be invoked against this. In attacking the modern neglect of philosophical living, he complains: "The only critique of philosophy that is possible and that proves anything, namely trying to see whether one can live in accordance with it, has never been taught at universities: all that has ever been taught is a critique of words by means of other words."20 In scorning the academic textualism of the universities, Nietzsche reverts here to an ancient Hellenistic distinction between real philosophical living and mere philosophical words. The beauty of a life should be in the former and not merely in the latter.

Although Cavell's ethics of democracy is not reducible to a mere textual aestheticism, it leaves itself too vulnerable to such an interpretation through its extreme emphasis on writing and neglect of other important dimensions of democratic philosophical life. For isn't there more to knowing how to live than knowing how to write and read, even in the special, more demanding, perfectionist sense that Cavell gives these textual terms? If the philosophical life is really taken seriously--that is, with the full-blooded rich concreteness that life entails, we need to go not only beyond a fictive textual persona but also beyond the ideal "city of words" and idealistic dimensions of self-transformation that Cavell emphasizes. We want to know not only how attractively a philosophy of life was pursued and formulated in words but also how attractively it was embodied in concrete deeds, in ethical and political praxis. Socrates' appeal derives not simply from its linguistic expression (for that is mostly Plato's) and from its sense of inner struggle for self-betterment, but largely from the heroic public actions of his exemplary life and death. If Dewey's philosophical life attracts us, this is not due to his expansive good will and melioristic engagement as exemplified in the repetitive reformulations of his often dull and prolix prose; it is because his actual life embodied tireless democratic praxis.

An attractive ethics of democracy must be concretely lived as well as written. In distinguishing between mere professors of philosophy and true philosophers, Thoreau insists on this point:

To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and bust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.21

No one knows this better than Cavell, who first reclaimed Thoreau and Emerson precisely to criticize academic philosophy's retreat from the practical task of philosophical living. Yet by emphasizing philosophy as writing and reading, while saying nothing about other forms of self-perfection, Cavell does not do enough to prevent philosophy's reappropriation as a merely textual activity.

There are, of course, also problems in going beyond a philosopher's texts. If we assess a philosophy of life by its real-life embodiment, philosophical criticism then converges with biography. Heidegger's contemptible Nazi collaboration becomes relevant to his philosophy of authenticity, as do Foucault's concrete acts of political rebellion and experiments with drugs and sadomasochism to his philosophy of transgressive truth. Their writing on these topics does not suffice. What, then, is the range of biographical details that can be relevant? Any that can be shown relevant by a good critic who understands a philosopher by interpreting both writings and life in light of each other. Such philosophical criticism requires not only analytic power but also historical skills and psychological insight.

If embodiment puts additional demands on the critic, it is still more demanding on the philosopher who must exemplify his way of life as attractively as he can, not only through exemplary writing and ethico-political praxis but also through the appeal of his own personal appearance and style. "The philosopher," Thoreau urges, should be "in advance of his age even in the outward form of his life" (W, p. 270). The quest for attractive philosophical embodiment must therefore not neglect the philosopher's own body, whose shape and functioning express the nature and quality of his life:

Every man is the builder of a temple, called his body, to the god he worships, after a style purely his own, nor can he get off by hammering marble instead. We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones. (W, p. 468)

What sort of body makes an attractive exemplar for a democratic philosophical life? This may seem a ridiculous question, but it simply extends Putnam and Cavell's concern with "how to live" to a crucial dimension of life they neglect. The soma is a site where we can really "change both our lives and the way we see our lives" (RP, p. 200) by literally reshaping ourselves and our relationship to our bodies.22

Independent self-realization in this dimension can also contribute to the democratic discussion of how to live by offering and testing new hypotheses about which somatic forms and practices are most rewarding and emancipatory. The conformist oppression of our highly advertised standards of bodily aesthetics and functioning can thus be challenged. These issues of somatic care and improvement belong to the field I define as "somaesthetics," an important but much neglected task for philosophical critique through both words and embodied practice.23 Both are integral to the fullest life of philosophy.24


1. The texts of Putnam and Cavell that I use here will be cited with the following abbreviations: Hilary Putnam, The Many Faces of Realism (LaSalle: Open Court, 1987). MFR; Realism With a Human Face, ed. James Conant (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), RHF; Renewing Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), RP; and Words and Life, ed. James Conant (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), WL; Stanley Cavell, In Quest of the Ordinary: Lines of Skepticism and Romanticism (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1988), Q0; Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1990), CH; A Pitch of Philosophy: Autobiographical Exercises (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), AP; and Philosophical Passages: Wittgenstein, Emerson, Austin, Derrida (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), PP. The quotations here are from Q0, pp. 10, 12; RP, p. 200; MI;R, p. 50.

2. Putnam's account of this demand and "the absolute conception of the world" is based on the work of Bernard Williams, which he criticizes in "Bernard Williams and the Absolute Conception of the World," RP, pp. 80-107.

3. I doubt that Dewey would have used the term "epistemological" to characterize the argument for democracy that Putnam finds in his work, since epistemology had for Dewey rather narrow and negative connotations. He probably would have preferred the term "logical" in the general sense he gave it as ordered, rational inquiry.

4. See John Dewey, The Public and its Problems (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988) LW 2:31R and Ethics (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989) LW 7:347, hereafter abbreviated as E. Other works of Dewey, all in the standard Southern Illinois University (SIU) editions, will be cited with the following abbreviations: Art as Experience (Carbondale: Southem Illinois University Press, 1987), AE (LW 10); Experience and Nature (Carbondale: Southem Illinois University Press, 1981), EN(LW 1); Liberalism and Social Action (Carbondale: Southem Illinois University Press, 1987), LSA (LW 11). Other references to Dewey's writings will simply use the volume numbers in the official edition of his collected works- early, middle, and late (EW, MW, LW) published by Southem Illinois University Press.

5. Part of Putnam's aim in invoking the notion of "right" is to criticize Dewey's ethics for ignoring it by simply reducing the idea of right and duty to questions of good consequences. "Like all consequentialist views," Putnam argues, "Dewey's has ~ouble doing justice to considerations of right" as opposed to questions of good. But this charge of consequentialism should not be taken here too seriously. First, it is valid only for Dewey's earlier ethical theory. By 1930 and with the publication of the second edition of his and Tufts's Ethics (1932), Dewey insisted that right and obligation (and also virtue) were "independent factors in morals," irreducible to consequentialist considerations of good. (Putnam may not have noticed this, since he cites from the first edition [RP, p. 189].) Moreover, we should note that Putnam himself ultimately formulates the personal ethical question in terms of good rather than right ewhether it is good that I, Hilary Putnam, do that thing," RP, p. 194).

6. In other wrifings, Putnam also links James's will to believe with existentialism and notes James's own allusion to Kierkegaard, "the Danish thinker," when advocating the individual's right to believe in cases "that cannot . . . be decided on intellectual grounds," "the right of the existentialist to believe ahead of the evidence." The difference Putnam draws here between pragmatism and existentialism is that only the former can see one's leap of faith as fallible and "subject to revision." "William James' Ideas," RHF, pp. 227, 229.

7. See Michel Foucault, "What is Enlightenmenf" in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Vintage, 1984).

8. I discuss Rorty's creative misprisions of Deweyan democratic theory and ethics of self- realization in Richard Shusterman, "Pragmatism and Liberalism Between Dewey and Rorty," Political Theory 22 (1994): 391-413, and much more extensively, Practicing Philosophy: Pragmatism and the Philosophical Life (New York: Routledge, 1997), chaps. 2, 4. See also the critique in Richard Bernstein, The New Constellation (Cambridge, MA: Polity Press, 1991), 230-92, part of which was originally published as "One Step Forward, Two Steps Backward: Rorty on Liberai Democracy and Philosophy," Political Theory 15 (1987).

9. But we never enjoy the radical freedom existentialists claim, because our behavior, desires, and beliefs have always been partly prestructured by habits that are shaped (though not mechanically determined) by our social conditions, training, and past experience. By turning to existentialism to maintain individual freedom against social determination, Putnam courts an unhappy opposition between individual and society that risks forgetting that this freedom is largely an emergent product of social structures rather than an autonomous, oppositional force.

10. Cavell would regard such a view as a form of moralism morally inferior to perfectionism, "the form of moralism that fixates on the presence of ideals in one's culture and promotes them to distract one from the presence of otherwise intolerable injustice." The other form of moralism "is the enforcement of morality, or a moral code, by immoral means." "It is," Cavell adds, "to John Dewey's eternal credit to have combated, unrelentingly, both forms of moralism" (CH, p. 13).

11. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973), 325.

12. In this conversation, perfectionism "is the idea of the cultivation of a new mode of human being, of being human where the idea is not that this comes later thanjustice but that it is essential in pursuing the justice of sharing one another's fate without reducing that fate, as it were, to mitigation" (CH, p. 25).

13. Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Joumals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. William H. Gilman et al. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960- 82), vol. 15, p. 462.

14. Dewey in contrast suggests a historicist outlook for understanding and assessing theories of the good life. Although he criticizes Epicureanism for concentrating on the individual rather than the social, he recognizes that self-absorption may be the best option when social conditions are too unfavorable for a social realization of self. See his Ethics, 202.

15. Such ad hominem arguments that appeal to the attraction of a life can cut both ways, involving the judger as well as the judged. In other words, my judgment of whether Cavell's philosophical life of perfectionism has enough democratic (or other) attraction will be a comment not only on his life, but on my own aesthefic taste and the life it reflects.

16. At one point Cavell speaks of the self's need to exemplify its intelligibility not only "when words are called for" but also "when there are no words" (CH xxvii). But this vague idea is never developed, and, as the above citations indicate, he tends to identify the philosophical life essentially with textual activity.

17. See my case for philosophical intervention in the praxis of cultural and university politics, in Practicing Philosophy, ch. 2.

18. See Pierre Hadot, "Spiritual Exercises," in his Philosophy as a Way of Life, ed. Arnold Davidson (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), 81-125. Davidson himself suggests the connection between this idea and Cavell's view of philosophical writing, 40 n. 91.

19. Alexander Nehamas, Nietzsche: Life as Literature (Cambridge: MA: Hatvard University Press, 1985), 233-4.

20. Friedrich Nietzsche, "Schopenhauer as Educator," in Untimely Meditations, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (Cambridge 1983), 187.

21. Henry Thoreau, Walden, in The Portable Thoreau, ed. Carl Bode (New York: Viking, 1969), 270; henceforth abbreviated W.

22. Putnam and Cavell, of course, recognize our embodied condition. As Putman critiques mind-body dualism (e.g., WL, pp. 3-61), so Cavell praises Austin's account of excuses for turning attention to "something philosophy would love to ignore--to the fact that human life is constrained to the life of the human body, to what Emerson calls the giant I always take with me. The law of the body is the law." But in treating embodiment as governed by unmodifiable iaw beyond our control and thus constituting the realm for excuses, Cavell effectively excludes the body from his perfectionist project. In contrast to bodily efforts, "the saying of words is not excusable" and marks the realm of responsibility. Hence it is here that Cavell urges perfectionist striving, assuming "the unending responsibility of responsiveness, of answerability, to make [oneselfJ intelligible." Similar demands(even if likewise not fully achievable) might be directed toward somatic improvement, and it is hard to see how Cavell would wish to separate words and voice from the body from which they issue and in which they resonate. Quotations here from PP, pp. 53, 63, 65; cf. AP, pp. 87, 125.

23. I take all these issues up in my recent book, Practicing Philosophy, which contains a chapter on somatic experience. For a comparative analysis of some of today's more popular and promising somatic techniques of emancipatory self-realization (e.g., Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais Method, and Bioenergetics), see Richard Shusterman, "Die Sorge um den Körper in der heutigen Kultur," in Philosophische Ansichten der Kultur del Moderne, ed. A. Kuhlmann (Frankfurt: Fischer, 1994), 241-77.

24. Clarification of the vague and somewhat contested notion of the philosophical life can be found in my book Practicing Philosophy, which has profited greatly from Piefie Hadot's seminal study of this notion in ancient philosophy. See Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life, ed. Davidson. My understanding of the philosophical life has also been improved by discussions with Arnold Davidson, James Miller, Alexander Nehamas, and James Conant.