Why Social and Political Theory Must be Normative

Terms of ordinary discourse serve as a conceptual prism through which we view different human relationships, activities, and forms of life. Most of the time we take such terms for granted. We are all shaped by ways of life that are built upon basic notions and rules. Political theorists concern themselves with the ways in which a society's constitutive understandings either nourish or deplete human capacities for purposive activity. It is, therefore, one task of the political theorist to examine critically the resources of ordinary language, revealing latent meanings, nuances, and shades of interpretation others may have missed or ignored. When we examine our basic assumptions, we enhance our ability to sift out the most important issues (Elshtain, 1981).

Society's understanding of the terms "public" and "private," for example, are always defined and understood in relationship to each other. One version of private means "not open to the public," and public, by contrast, is "of or pertaining to the whole, done or made in behalf of the community as a whole." In part these contrasts derive from the Latin origin of "public,"pubes, the age of maturity when signs of puberty begin to appear: Then and only then does the child enter, or become qualified for, public activity. Similarly, publicus is that which belongs to, or pertains to, "the public," the people. But there is another meaning: public as open to scrutiny; private as that not subjected to the persistent gaze of publicity. The protection of privacy is necessary, or so defenders of constitutional democracy have long insisted, in order to prevent government from becoming all-intrusive, as well as to preserve the possibility of different sorts of relationships—both mother and citizen, friend and official.

Our involvement in one of a number of competing ethical or normative perspectives is inescapable. It is influenced by what we take to be the appropriate relationship between public and private life, for this also defines our understanding of what politics should or should not attempt to define, regulate, or even control. There is widespread disagreement over the respective meaning of public and private within societies. Brian Fay sees the public and the private as part of a cluster of "basic notions" that serve to structure and give coherence to all known ways of life. The boundaries between the public and the private help to create a moral environment for individuals, singly and in groups; to dictate norms of appropriate or worthy action; and to establish barriers to action, particularly in areas such as the taking of human life, regulation of sexual relations, promulgation of familial duties and obligations, and the arena of political responsibility. Public and private are embedded within a dense web of meanings and intimations and are linked to other basic notions: nature and culture, male and female, and each society's "understanding of the meaning and role of work; its views of nature; ... its concepts of agency; its ideas about authority, the community, the family; its notion of sex; its beliefs about God and death and so on" (p. 78). The content, meaning, and range of public and private vary within each society and turn on whether the virtues of political life or the values of private life are rich and vital or have been drained, singly or together, of their normative significance.

The social and political theorist recognizes that no idea or concept is an island unto itself. Basic notions comprise a society's intersubjectively shared realm. "Intersubjectivity" is a rather elusive term referring to shared ideas, symbols, and concepts that reverberate within a society and help to constitute a way of life. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein claims that when we first "begin to believe anything, what we believe is not a single proposition, it is a whole system of propositions. (Light dawns gradually over the whole.)" (p. 21e). Similarly, when we use a concept, particularly one of the bedrock notions integral to a way of life, we do not do so as a discrete piece of "linguistic behavior" but with reference to other concepts, contrasts, and terms of comparison.

As with the concepts of public and private, there are no neatly defined and universally accepted limits on the boundaries of politics. Politics, too, is essentially contested. An essentially contested concept is internally complex or makes reference to several dimensions, which are, in turn, linked to other concepts. Such a concept is also open-textured, in that the rules of its application are relatively flexible, and it is appraisive or normative. For example, one political theorist might claim that a given social situation is unjust. Another might argue that to label the situation unjust only inflames matters, because he or she believes that certain underlying cherished social institutions and relations should not be tampered with or eliminated in the interest of attaining a political or ideological goal. In another example, the feminist political theorist who believes that being born female in and of itself constitutes an injustice on the "biological" level may want to eliminate all sex differences and a public/private distinction as well, for she will see in distinctions themselves a ploy to oppress women (Firestone). Other feminist thinkers may find this view reprehensible, as it deepens rather than challenges societal devaluation of female bodies and a woman's central role in reproduction. This latter group sees injustice in inequalities that are socially and politically, not biologically, constituted. The point is not to eliminate a public/private distinction but to push for parity in male and female participation in both realms.

Boundary shifts in our understanding of "the political" and hence, of what is public and what is private, have taken place throughout the history of Western life and thought. Minimally, a political perspective requires that some activity called politics be differentiated from other activities. If all conceptual boundaries are blurred and all distinctions between public and private are eliminated, no politics can, by definition, exist (Elshtain, 1981). The relatively open-textured quality of politics means that innovative and revolutionary thinkers are often those who declare politics to exist where politics was not thought to exist before. Should their reclassifications remain over time, the meaning of politics—indeed of human life itself—may be transformed. Altered social conditions may also provoke a reassessment of old, and a recognition of new, "political" realities. Sheldon Wolin observes, "The concepts and categories of a political philosophy may be likened to a net that is cast out to capture political phenomena, which are then drawn in and sorted in a way that seems meaningful and relevant to the particular thinker" (p. 21). Thus each social and political theorist must be clear about what rules he or she is employing to sort the catch and to what ends and purposes.

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