Spheres of Justice is obviously in some ways an academic book. It’s written by a professor of its subject matter and it clearly is intended to provide its readers access to a current academic debate. But Spheres of Justice, as I mentioned earlier, has few footnotes and few references to the historical and scholarly literature, and was put out by a general-interest publisher. It is presumably for the general-interest reader. It’s worth mentioning, I think, that this kind of book is very rarely seen these days.
These days there is more of a distinct split between books that presuppose readers will have a certain academic background, or at least the ability to follow academic prose, and will want the kind of citations of sources that would be sufficient in an academic book—and books that are intended more for entertainment, or at most a journalistic kind of narrative instruction, which have to use narrative and common language to engage the reader and make the book’s contents go down easily. There are essayists, intellectuals, and journalists out there, some of them academics, as well, who write the latter kind of thing in generalist magazines; but there seems to be little call for books that contain original academic ideas but make their appeal directly to the common reader. It’s possible to argue, probably, that the reason for this has to do with publishers’ mergers and the lack of publishers willing to support mid-range books.
Walzer states that he intends “to stand in the [Platonic] cave, in the city, on the ground . . . to interpret to [his] fellow citizens the meanings that they share.” He sets up a contrast between what he is doing, which he calls “particularism,” and “philosophy,” or at least the usual kind of philosophy. (The same contrast is picked up again in chapter one.) He defines philosophy as something that involves a thinker going away from the community, metaphorically climbing to a mountaintop, and thinking on his own. He does not want to do that kind of thing, which has indeed been criticized on a number of different levels. The idea of standing with the community and speaking with or for them, rather than to or at them, suggests a certain kind of non-academic approach to writing, one that won’t make use of obscure texts or difficult concepts, that won’t require a reader to engage in complicated thought processes or in abstract mathematics and logic in order to understand it, and that will come to conclusions that are acceptable to the majority. It also will, presumably, not tell the community that there is something wrong with it.
To some extent, this does seem to be what we’ll find. The rest of the book, at a first glance, appears to consist of many short narratives about societies in different times and places, tied to the concrete, with little or no academic, scientific, or theoretical jargon, and tied together with a few short discussions of the ideas that hold the book’s chapters together. In its form, the book will probably not alienate a general reader.
A reader who knows just a little bit about the subject matter, on the other hand, may find herself in difficulties. Walzer cites a number of introductory or popularizing texts in social science for his narratives; but he doesn’t engage with them as research. Instead, he cites them as authoritative, final accounts of what the reader may presumably take as true about the past and about other cultures. But these summaries of the social science research aren’t, in fact, nuanced enough to be accurate. It’s possible that at one time they were considered authoritative, but I’m guessing that even at the time, a student would have been ill-advised to use them as such, without delving further into the sources cited, and investigating alternative opinions. (It may be, in part, for this reason, that the market for this kind of book has diminished, and that even journalistic books need extensive bibliographies to be taken seriously.)
So, here, Walzer has educated what might be called “the general reader” about social science and history; but in doing so, Walzer has caused readers of his book to separate themselves in some small part from the community, which he also says is a bad thing to do. And for educated readers, Walzer might seem to be saying that their objections are founded on beliefs and commitments that separate them from the community, and thus don’t carry much weight. Who is this community, then, whom he wishes to be standing firmly among?
Moreover, one might ask whether it’s really possible to think in terms of writing an academic book while remaining entirely within Plato’s cave.
If the social science research, on which the bulk of Walzer’s book is based, is after thirty years no longer considered authoritative (and I think a reader in 2015 has to start by assuming it is not), then what remains of his argument? It is entirely possible that something of value remains. Again, though, it isn’t obvious that extracting that value is going to be possible for someone who rejects the kind of philosophy that Walzer suggests one ought to reject.
And the point of view of the subjects of this research should also be taken into account. Do the social scientists on whose work Walzer draws also themselves, really, stand on the same ground as their subjects and speak for them?
And returning to the readers, is it possible to remain within Plato’s cave while considering that other societies have done things differently? (Many thinkers have held that it is not.) And how are they, in turn, to think of themselves as potential subjects for social scientists?
Obviously this approach raises a number of questions, along a variety of different lines.
There is a kind of writing that can be philosophical and that does stick to the language and concepts of the wider community. Critical theory, of the sort promoted by Europeward-looking Marxists like Raymond Geuss, might be this kind of writing, or what’s known in the English-speaking world, generally, as “continental philosophy.” And then there’s literary writing, which can aspire to a certain philosophical significance, but which puts language, feeling, and real life ahead of abstract cognitive considerations. Walzer might be engaging in one of these practices, and there’s no need to dismiss the book simply because its rhetorical and ideological purpose is mixed or unusual.
These questions will probably return, however, in the course of reading the rest of the book.