Far From Home


The STEREO is drowning out your efforts to finish that moral reasoning paper due tomorrow, your head is spinning and your patience exhausted. You decide to speak to the offending roommate, but what will you say if your initial plea for silence is disregarded?

Two strategies suggest themselves. You might issue a challenge: "Don't you think everybody has a right to a little quiet in their own room? Can't you imagine circumstances in which you would demand just that?" You might appeal to roommate history: At the start of this semester we agreed not to blast the stereo after two in the morning--surely you've not forgotten already?"

Interpretation and Social Criticism

By Michael Walzer

Harvard University Press; 96 pp.; $12.50.

In your frustration you might be forgiven for not realizing that in your choice of strategy you were resolving a debate that lies at the heart of current social theory, moral philosophy and epistemology. If you choose the first strategy, you were appealling to an abstract standard which needed only to be imagined to prove plausible. You asked your roommate to distance herself from her immediate enjoyment and think about rights that should be enjoyed by all.

Michael Walzer believes that this kind of strategy, which he identifies with thinkers such as John Rawls, is less likely to be used--let alone used successfully--than the second. Asking your roommate to distance herself from her circumstances is, Walzer argues, to ask her to stand "nowhere in particular", a bizarre request which she will rightly find implausible.

In his latest book, Walzer endorses a model of social criticism embodied in the second strategy, criticism which recalls to the roommate a past in which she herself was a participant. As Walzer sees it, you are in fact asking her to interpret a story of which both of you are a part; or, more precisely, you are asking that she accept your interpretation or offer a better one. As Walzer puts it, "the experience of moral argument is best understood in the interpretive mode."

Watzer's advocacy of this "interpretive" mode of argument places him, as he is well aware, alongside thinkers such as Michael Sandel, who believe that appeals to shared understandings among identifiable communities are the most effective form of moral argument.

But in his new book Walzer gives the communitarian argument a new twist. He likens legitimate social critique to the reading of literature. Just as there may be no definitive best reading of a poem, Walzer argues, so neither you nor your roommate may be able to give the best interpretation of your earlier agreement. But neither the difficulty of textual criticism nor that of resolving exactly what you meant four weeks ago needs prevent your attempt to do just that. when your roommate says,"you think Madonna is disturbing--I can't work without her," you can respond by pointing out the noise level and the possibility that a Walkman might solve both your problems.

Walzer's argument that all social criticism should be akin to the textual interpretation of a book both the critic and criticized party have read is not totally convincing. If Walzer's analogy were complete, for example, we would have to write or co-author as well as read all those books we criticize. Hermeneutics, to give Walzer's interpretive model its formal title, is a fascinating philosophical strategy with a massive history in European thought. But its application to political criticism needs more analysis and justification than has yet been generated.

WALZER'S ARGUMENT that the social critic is less damaging and more constructive if he uses arguments internal to a particular society's experience is likewise provocative but inconclusive. In other writings, he has insisted that people should enjoy the right of self-determination--not because their particular histories embody such rights but because they are human beings:

The people's claim to most persuasively put, it seems to me, not in terms of what the people know but in terms of who they are. They are the subjects of the law, and if the law is to bind them as free men and women, they must also be its makers.

This is a philosophical stipulation that remains true regardless of a people's "shared understandings" of the form of government and notions of individual rights that follow from their community's heritage and traditions. It puts strain on his bolder assertions about communal supremacy in his new book.

This tension reveals perhaps the crucial point: Walzer defends the interpretive model he embraces by offering many examples of Jewish rabbinical interpretation and story-telling. Indeed the third chapter of his book initially was presented before the Harvard Hillel, an audience familiar with that tradition's rich biblical foundations. For Jews deeply concerned with Judaism at a personal and political level--and Walzer is such a person--these stories and the approach they embody are deeply persuasive. But Walzer forgets that the language of rights and duties, a language which Rawls attempts to sharpen and shape, has an enduring history for many Americans.

Those who crossed the Atlantic deliberately distanced themselves from their previous circumstances and took a vast risk with the unknown. They knew that while they would take many memories with them, they were also leaving much behind. Eventually these people would justify their new constitution in the very universal language Walzer now questions. The universalistic claims of our moral heritage are part of our American communal experience--a fact that makes Walzer's critique of them ironic.

IS IT going too far to argue that Jewish communitarians such as Walzer and Sandel are engaged in a moving but ultimately very particular struggle to synthesize two moral languages, that of American democracy on the one hand and that of the Jewish shtetl on the other? Such an argument would account for Walzer often slipping into a language of universal human rights. But it would explain equally well why Walzer finds in textual criticism his model for social criticism. Has not the community of which he is a part survived by finding a homeland in religious texts?

Isaac Bashevis Singer tells the story of an aged and poor Jewish shoemaker who arrives in America to join his now affluent sons. Despite his sons` generosity and care, the old man is bewildered by the strangeness of their world. He cannot connect the cosmopolitan Americans he sees before him with the young boys he once trained to make shoes by hand in their cottage home.

On the point of death he finds a few of his old tools lying on the floor and starts to make shoes again. To the old man's surprise and delight, his sons return home from the modern shoe plant they manage and join him at an activity both familiar and strange to them. The sons are engaged in a practice wrenched from its original circumstances, geography and social environment, yet it is one that allows them to be a family again; it is a practice that is somehow their own. They, like Walzer, have become communitarians who must find their home in memories, memories of a life that lies back across the sea.

David Steiner, the assistant senior tutor of Leverett House, is a Ph.D. candidate in the Government Department.