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Debating Political Theory

Uma Sundari Nabhi

By Gerald F. Gaus
Sage Publications, London, 2003, pp. 240, £19.99


Contemporary Theories of Liberalism written by Gerald F. Gaus puts together the most important contemporary writings in the debate on political theory. In eight chapters the book provides a comprehensive overview of the key tenets of liberalism developed through Hobbes, Locke, Kant, and Rawls to present-day theories. In the entire debate the central argument revolves around the idea of public reason and based on this, the book addresses and explores seven dominant theories of public reason, namely, neo-Hobbesianism, pragmatism, pluralism, deliberative democracy, political democracy, Rawlsian political liberalism and justificatory liberalism.   The chapters ‘Liberalism and Reason’ and ‘Pluralistic Liberalism: Making Do Without Public Reason?’ which form an introductory discussion examines Isaiah Berlin’s account and defence of plural values in a liberal political order. The recognition of the plurality of values and the recognition that there is no single truth verified by reason in the matters with which politics deals, according to him, is the starting point of liberalism, not a challenge to it.   The chapter ‘Hobbesian-inspired Liberalism: Public Reason Out of Individual Reason’ examines Gray and other political theorists, who have argued that Hobbes’s theory provides the key for understanding how political order arises out of the clash of private reason. Unlike Berlin, Hobbesian theories see pluralism and rational disagreement as a problem to be solved.   ‘Collective Reason: Deepening Social Roots of Public Reason’ continues analysing this general Hobbesian proposal identifying a ‘collective’ reasoning that allows for cooperation by supplanting private reasoning. This chapter examines the core idea that politics is essentially a matter of coordination guided by public reason, but public reason is not understood as a collective reason supplied by political actors such as the sovereign, but by society and its rules. It looks deeper for the roots of public reason. The next two chapters look to democracy as the key to showing how public reason can develop out of private reasoning of citizens. Chapter 5 ‘Deliberative Democracy: Public Reason and Political Concensus’ contends that the essence of a democratic society in the creation of a public shared view through public deliberation. It focusses on the influential formulations of deliberative democracy advanced by Jurgen Habermas and Joshua Cohen. Whereas Habermas sees deliberative democracy as an alternative to liberalism, Cohen seeks to articulate a liberal deliberative democracy. ‘Political Democracy: Public Reason Through Aggregation’ looks at another way democracy might be the source of liberal public reason. Rather than shared ...

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