December 12, 2007


Between Liberalism and Leftism: a review of Thinking Politically by Michael Walzer (ADAM KIRSCH, December 12, 2007, NY Sun)

"I don't think that I ever managed real philosophy," Michael Walzer says in the interview that forms the last chapter of "Thinking Politically" (Yale University Press, 333 pages, $30), the stimulating new collection of his essays. This may sound like false modesty coming from Mr. Walzer, who is one of America's leading political philosophers. But in fact, by forswearing the name of philosopher, he is merely trying to give a more precise definition of the kind of thinking he does. "I couldn't breathe easily at the high level of abstraction that philosophy seemed to require," he explains. "I quickly got impatient with the playful extension of hypothetical cases, moving farther and farther away from the world we all lived in." Mr. Walzer's essays take exactly the opposite approach: They set up camp in the midst of the world we all live in bringing the rigor of political theory to the messiness of political debate. It makes sense that Mr. Walzer is both a professor at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study and an editor of Dissent, the left-liberal journal: His theories are always also interventions.

This is true of his major works — books such as "Just and Unjust Wars" (1977), which sought to redefine just-war theory for the post-Vietnam age, and "Spheres of Justice" (1983), which argues from liberal principles for a social-democratic politics. It is all the more obviously true of the essays in "Thinking Politically," most of which began life as lectures and journal articles. The book offers an informal survey of the major themes of Mr. Walzer's thought, as applied to some of the major issues of the last 25 years. It is thus a good opportunity to come to grips with the strengths and the limitations of both Mr. Walzer's political principles and his way of practicing political philosophy.

If the essays in "Thinking Politically" share a single theme, or better, a common tension, it is Mr. Walzer's effort to reconcile his liberal instincts with his leftist commitments to socialism and cultural relativism. For the contemporary left, as Mr. Walzer recognizes better than anyone, is in important ways at odds with the liberal tradition.

What makes Mr. Walzer a member of the Decent Left is that very rejection of philosophy, even his own, when confronted by reality.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 12, 2007 10:29 AM
Comments for this post are closed.