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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The politics of understanding : language as a model of culture

  • Author(s): Leitch, David Gideon
  • et al.

A by now widespread critique of political liberalism claims that political liberalism hides liberal preferences in seemingly-neutral policies, which undermines the legitimacy of a political order that claims to maximize the ability of diverse citizens to co-exist. Charles Taylor's call for a fusion of horizons has been one of the most important of these criticisms of Rawlsian political liberalism. In my dissertation, The Politics of Understanding: Language as a Model of Culture, I develop a positive model of cross-cultural understanding based in language acquisition. I begin with a criticism of Rawls which looks back to Amayarta Sen's social choice principles, which highlight a contradiction in Rawls's work: Rawls requires, but also disallows, the incorporation of liberal cultural assumptions to ground his principles of justice. The next two chapters critique Taylor's call for a fusion of horizons. First, I examine Taylor's turn to Gadamer and Hegel. I argue that Taylor misappropriates Gadamer, and that Hegel's historical theory has failed. Second, I look within Taylor's earlier work on language and culture. Taylor here is incomplete; he cannot explain how horizons can be fused to allow members of one culture to understand another culture. The fifth chapter develops a new model of this cross-cultural understanding, indebted to Taylor, but moving beyond his limitations by looking to resources in developmental psychology, which I locate in the work of early Twentieth Century developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky. Unlike Taylor, Vygotsky explains how acculturation and language acquisition interact and mutually reinforce. The sixth chapter develops my model of cross-cultural understanding, which provides a set of resources for local policymakers to respond to the challenges of value pluralism. In addition to revisiting Wisconsin v Yoder, I take up an example from Mozert v Hawkins County Board of Education to demonstrate the value of this new model. My final chapter explores the exchange between Hannah Arendt and Ralph Ellison over Arendt's judgment of the desegregation of public schools in Little Rock. This illuminates the connection between models of language and judgment. Neither Arendt nor Ellison articulate compelling models of language, as neither appreciate language's constitutive relationship to identity

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