The limits of logic: A critique of Sandel's philosophical anthropology

Philosophy and Social Criticism 25 (4):81-102 (1999)


Criticizing liberal conceptions such as the autonomous subject and calling for self-interpreting selves, Michael Sandel's first book, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice seems to oppose liberal theory. Methodologically, however, it follows rather than challenges its liberal predecessors: Sandel arrives at his philosophical anthropology through abstraction and deduction. This type of inquiry is not only comparable with that of liberal theory, but also incompatible with self-interpretation as Sandel defines it. The content of his argument undermines its form. It also suggests an alternative approach, historical rather than philosophical reflection, actually transforming the practice of political theory as it aims to transform our self-understanding. Given Sandel's critique and his positive contribution, normative theory must be grounded in particular empirical circumstances. Sandel's second book, Democracy's Discontent, thus represents not just a completion of the earlier analysis, but a necessary methodological change. The significance of the first book lies less in its criticism of liberalism than in its criticism of philosophy as the foundation of political theory. Key Words: empiricism • methodology • philosophy of social sciences • reflexivity • Michael Sandel • self-interpretation.

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