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by Ashley Woodiwiss

Do We Really Need a Public Philosophy?

Democracy's Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy
By Michael J. Sandel
Harvard University Press
417 pp.; $24.95

Worry over the state of the American soul is as old as Massachusetts Bay Colony. Are we, as Judge Robert Bork has it, Slouching Towards Gomorrah? Maybe, maybe not--but we can reliably place Bork's book and others like it in a long tradition, what Sacvan Bercovitch has called "the American Jeremiad." We hear such public outcries whenever America seems to be failing its promise as "a city set on a hill."

In their earliest form, among the Puritans, such jeremiads were expressed in theological terms. Over time, however, as America developed into a pluralistic culture, philosophy replaced theology as the authoritative lingua franca wherein America's ills were to be diagnosed and prescriptions proffered. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, a distinctive genre, public philosophy, emerged as an effort to address the ills besetting the modern America polity. A direct line of descent can be drawn from John Dewey to Walter Lippman to Robert Bellah and Bill Bennett.

Anxiety and public philosophy go hand in hand. Whenever the national mood grows tense, we should expect to see the public philosopher arise, ready to offer his cure. Indeed, as we lurch toward the century's end, the field is crowded with contenders, among whom Michael Sandel is one of the most worthy of our attention. His book Democracy's Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy is one part litany of woe, one part naming of evil, but also with a promised deliverance at hand.

Taking Sandel seriously

This past spring the Atlantic Monthly ran an excerpt from Democracy's Discontent as a cover story. The editors chose wisely. Sandel is no stranger to the central networks of intellectual and political discourse of our day. Professor of government at Harvard University (where he has taught since 1980), a distinguished scholar, a popular lecturer, an articulate speaker who appears regularly ...

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