Sustaining Affirmation: The Strengths of Weak Ontology in Political Theory

By Stephen K. White | Go to book overview

Chapter Two
ONTOLOGICAL UNDERCURRENTS
WITHIN LIBERALISM: GEORGE KATEB'S
“DEMOCRATIC INDIVIDUALITY”

GEORGE KATEB is a staunch liberal. He affirms unequivocally the absolute supremacy of individual rights over all other values. He extols John Rawls's A Theory of Justice as “the great statement of individualism in this century.”1 Moreover, representative democracy is categorically—not just pragmatically—preferred by Kateb to direct democracy, since the latter always threatens rights. He is almost constitutionally averse to any moralpolitical claims advanced on behalf of ideas of community, active citizenship, religion, or group identity. Kateb does not mince words. Communitarianism, for example, has “too many affinities to fascism.” Similarly, the “normal condition” of group identity is “derangement.”2

Despite Kateb's initial appearance as a fully confident liberal, he is nevertheless somewhat anxious. At the core of this anxiety is the worry that, within mainstream liberalism, “individualism is not always seen in its fullness.”3 A remedy for this deficiency can be had, however, by drawing upon a particular strand of American thought; specifically, the “Emersonian tradition,” which includes Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman. At the heart of their work is the concept of “democratic individuality.” “The Emersonian tradition is an attempt to sever democratic individuality from all other individualisms that resemble but reject or betray it, or that developed with it but then swerve and become narrowly extreme.” The worst of these “other individualisms” are those that conceive the self as either a “possessive individualist,” where others and the world come into focus only in light of self-interest

The following abbreviations will be used for referring to Kateb's books:

____________________
1
“Democratic Individuality and the Meaning of Rights,” in Liberalism and the Moral Life, ed. N. Rosenblum (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), 184.
2
IO, 213, 229.
3
“Democratic Individuality,” 185.

-18-

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