Commentary Magazine

Prophets With Tenure

Michael Walzer is surely in the front ranks of contemporary social critics. His major works, such as Spheres of Justice (1983), command respectful attention among many moral philosophers and political theorists. One may well disagree with the distinctly left-of-center political purposes to which Walzer puts his theoretical work, but there is no doubt that he has influenced the intellectual geography. Still, although we know what Walzer has done, until now it has not been quite clear what Walzer himself thinks he has done. That lacuna is filled in part by Interpretation and Social Criticism,1 an engaging and eminently readable “theoretical preamble” to a larger and “more explicitly political” book Walzer says he is working on.

Walzer begins the three lectures at Harvard which comprise the book at hand by suggesting that there are “three paths” that moral philosophy can take: discovery, invention, and interpretation. Historically, the path of discovery has typically been religious, like Moses at Sinai. The discovery is of something new; it tells us what we did not and could not know by ourselves. Of course secular philosophers also claim to make moral discoveries by wrenching themselves from their particularities and viewing moral reality from “no particular point of view” (Thomas Nagel); presumably, this “no particular point of view” approximates the objectivity of God’s point of view. But Walzer is not much impressed by such a claim. For one thing, these secular discoveries usually tell us only what we already know. For another, the philosophers’ vaunted “objectivity” is just another form of particularity. Walzer has more “confidence” in religious discoveries, and therefore regrets that they are no longer possible. He notes, in somewhat elegiac tones, “It suggests what we lose when we lose our belief in God.”

But secular philosophers can and do follow the second path, the path of moral “invention.” Although Walzer does not put it this way, moral invention is the great project of the secular Enlightenment. Kant and his epigones, utilitarianism, contractarianism—all aim at “imitating God’s creation rather than the discoveries of his [religious] servants.” They are, of course, imitating God’s creative work in the practical absence of God.

Philosophers who walk the path of invention must be much preoccupied with methodology; they need “a design of a design procedure.” Here Jürgen Habermas comes in for attention, and John Rawls’s Theory of Justice. Toward such efforts Walzer is respectful, but he remains unpersuaded. The fact is that morality, Walzer believes, is a social and cultural given. People can imagine themselves going behind Rawls’s “veil of ignorance” in order to invent a new moral world but, having imagined a world other than their own, why should they want to take up permanent residence in it? Such an invented world is, says Walzer, like a perfectly designed hotel. It might be very good in many respects, but it is not “home.”

A home is precisely what the social critic has. He is, or should be, a “connected critic”—connected to “a dense moral culture within which [he] can feel some sense of belonging.” He does not discover morality, nor does he invent morality; he interprets morality. Walzer is chary of the word tradition, perhaps because of its conservative connotations, but it is tradition and community that he champions in theory. Although Edmund Burke is never mentioned, Walzer’s theoretical constructs are much closer to Burke than to Rawls and the utilitarians, never mind to Habermas and the Marxians. Perhaps Walzer recognizes this, for he apparently feels the need to insist repeatedly that the social critic as interpreter can be not a whit less radical than the social critic as discoverer or inventor.

Walzer suggests that the three paths of moral philosophy can be roughly compared with the three branches of government. Discovery is for the executive branch, invention for the legislative, and interpretation for the judicial. We are all in the judicial branch now because in a “dense moral culture” the executive and legislative branches have done their work. “The claim of interpretation is simply this: that neither discovery nor invention is necessary because we already possess what they pretend to provide.” The stuff of morality is culturally secured; now all is interpretation.

To be sure, the moral stuff is secured in specific cultures, and not all cultures have the same moral stuff. The moral question asked by the “connected” social critic is not about the right thing to do in general but, in Walzer’s words, “What is the right thing for us to do?” There may be a kind of “minimal code” that applies to all cultures—do not murder, deceive, betray, etc.—but this is pretty thin, and it is not possible to deduce from it a “thick” moral culture. Nor does the question of what is morally “true” arise in Walzer’s argument. (As for God, it is apparently possible to believe that He was, but not that He is.)



Who are the social critics? They are those with a special gift and calling for moral interpretation. The social critic is a “sage,” and sages may well be found outside the world of the professional adepts who constitute “the interpretive community.” People who know about morality are not necessarily moral philosophers, but they, and moral philosophers who do their duty, are all social critics. “There is a tradition, a body of moral knowledge; and there is this group of sages, arguing. There isn’t anything else.”

Social criticism is not only the criticism of society; it is an activity that is itself social in nature. “When our country behaves badly, it is still ours, and we are, perhaps, especially obligated to criticize its policies.” The critic is detached but not marginal; indeed he is “detached from his own marginality.” Nor is criticism always negative; Walzer, calling it part of the larger “activity of cultural elaboration and affirmation,” disagrees with those who view social critics as constituting a subversive “new class” or “adversary culture.”

The maxim for the critic who would be effective is: “A little to the side, but not outside: critical distance is measured in inches.” The critic must not step outside the community or turn against the community. That was the mistake that Sartre made during the Algerian war. Although he was “a consistent and brave critic of French society,” his embrace of the title “traitor” was a grave error since it “cut the ground from under his own enterprise.” “An enemy,” says Walzer, “is not recognizable as a social critic; he lacks standing.” An enemy’s criticism is simply beside the point.

Of course in some communities (Walzer cites the Amish and the Hasidim) there may be no room at all for criticism, and the critic must of necessity become marginal or even an enemy. Presumably this may also be the case in societies such as the Soviet Union. In our kind of society, however, what is called for is “criticism from within,” or an “immanent critique.” Ironically, the critic from within can be much more radical than the enemy, by identifying with society but also setting himself “against the prevailing political forces” and opposing all the “ideologists” who offer apologies for the “status quo.” If the problem with “disconnected critics” like the Marxists and others who would force a new social order from the outside is that they end up indulging in what Walzer calls “unattractive politics,” proper social critics can lodge the same criticisms much more effectively, “by elaborating on existing moralities and telling stories about a society more just than, though never entirely different from, our own.”



The last chapter is “The Prophet as Social Critic,” but it is really about the social critic as prophet. Walzer takes the biblical prophet Amos for his model, since Amos, in Walzer’s telling, did pretty much what today’s social critic should be doing. To be sure, the prophets thought they had a message from God, the late Chief Executive. Or, as Walzer puts it, they “attribute their message to God.” But in reality their reference was entirely to a shared knowledge of the history and culture of Israel.

As is the case today, the biblical prophets could be effective because they drew from the cultural resources of the people a picture of what Israel could and should be. Theirs was the immanent critique of the connected critic. Moreover, the prophets were nothing if not particularistic: their argument was that “this people must live in this way.” As Walzer summarizes their stance:

This is the standard form of social criticism, and though later critics rarely achieve the angry poetry of the prophets, we can recognize in their work the same intellectual structure: the identification of public pronouncements and respectable opinion as hypocritical, the attack upon actual behavior and institutional arrangements, the search for core values (to which hypocrisy is always a clue), the demand for an everyday life in accordance with the core.

This may sound terribly negative, even polemical and agitational. But, Walzer assures us, it begins and ends in affirmation. The effective prophet-critic does not stand aloof from those he criticizes. “Nor is he emotionally detached; he does not wish the natives well, he seeks the success of their common enterprise.” While Walzer does not use the term, there is even a kind of patriotism involved. Although the social critic need not love the people, he must be devoted to their project which, with his prophetic help, they may yet come to recognize as their project.



Interpretation and Social Criticism is an important book—because it discloses something of the self-understanding of Michael Walzer, himself an important protagonist in current moral debates about America and its role in the world, and because Walzer’s self-understanding is shared by thousands of others who think of themselves as social critics, although they may occupy less exalted platforms than Harvard and the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. More than that, Interpretation reflects a growing and, in my judgment, salutary skepticism toward the Rawlsian “inventors” of morality who would construct ethics from the perspective of the “disinterested spectator.”

Although there may not be anything substantively original in Walzer’s argument, he does make a lively case for the moral actor as a culturally “embedded” and “situated” self. His parable about the difference between designing a hotel room and living at home is a memorable and, so far as I know, original contribution. In addition, he offers sage advice to would-be critics on why people are not likely to accept criticism from those whom they perceive to be their enemies. Admittedly, this advice can be exploited cynically—the unscrupulous might welcome Interpretation as a handbook for intellectual fifth columnists—but we must assume that is not Walzer’s intention.

And yet, its merits granted, the book does leave the reader with disturbing questions. For one thing, Walzer is marvelously insouciant about the dangers of the sin of presumption in taking oneself to be a prophet. Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote of the awefilled dread experienced by the biblical prophets. To speak the prophetic word was “a risk beyond measure, the invocation of a judgment under which no man can stand.” Walzer bears up under the pressure wonderfully well. True, he has considerably reduced the risk by invoking no judgment higher than that of the community of critical consciousness to which he belongs. Nonetheless, there is an unseemly eagerness in his vocation.

In biblical times, the true prophets were reluctant prophets. The Lord took them by the scruff of their necks and forced them, kicking and screaming all the way, to do their prophetic duty. Their protest was not without reason, for the fate of a prophet was usually not a happy one. At least there is no recorded instance of a true prophet ending up as a tenured sage at the ancient version of the Institute for Advanced Study.

In addition, one wishes that Walzer had addressed the troubling issue raised by the fact that in the days of Jeremiah, Hosea, and Amos the vast majority of those who claimed to be prophets were false prophets. Here again there is a risk factor that he seems not to have entertained. The reason for his failure to do so may lie in his assumption that someone like Amos represents “the standard form of social criticism,” when in fact prophecy is a startling instance of intervention by the God in Whom, with regrets, Walzer says he does not believe.



How then might we identify the prophets, if there are any, in our own time? Walzer claims the prophetic mantle for social critics, but he does not specify who in particular might belong to that distinguished company. His criteria for membership include several factors. Prophets are detached but not altogether marginal, hold unpopular and anti-establishment views, and, above all, are opposed to the status quo. Walzer may not be pleased to find himself in such company, but one cannot help noticing that the fundamentalist preachers of today’s religious Right would seem to fit rather neatly what he calls the “standard form”; moreover, there is in their case, unlike in Walzer’s, the additional fillip that they do claim to speak the word of God.

If Walzer would deny these people membership in his prophetic elite, it would probably have to be on the basis of a disagreement with their politics, or perhaps on the basis of their social class. I confess that this would strike me as profoundly unfair, and also inconsistent with Walzer’s larger purpose. If this society needs as much criticism as Walzer says it does, the procedure for becoming a certified prophet should be inclusive rather than exclusive. We can hardly have too many voices assailing the hated status quo.

There is an additional similarity between Walzer’s social critics and the prophets of the religious Right. “The Prophet as Social Critic” insists that our situation is essentially the same as that addressed by Amos. That is to say, “we” too, like ancient Israel, are an elect people burdened by a history freighted with singular moral mandates for which we are to be held accountable. Now, until the practice went out of fashion in the early part of this century, old-line Protestantism regularly drew direct parallels between America and Israel of old. In contemporary American discourse the only people to do so are some evangelical and fundamentalist Christians—and, it now appears, Michael Walzer.

To be sure, they draw the parallel for quite different purposes. The religious Right suggests that America is elected by God to bring freedom, prosperity, and spiritual salvation to the world. Walzer suggests that America is elected by history to be fair game for a moral critique.



On a pair of related points it is not possible to take Michael Walzer entirely seriously. For some puzzling reason, he insists that his prophet-critics do not constitute a “new knowledge class” or an “adversary culture.” And yet elsewhere in the book he flatly states, “Criticism is an adversarial proceeding.” The objects of that adversarial proceeding he specifies, without naming names, as “defenders of the status quo” within our own society. Walzer is very definite that the adversarial relationship is “not between critics from one culture and critics from another.” That is so for the obvious reason that an “immanent critique” can only be practiced on people within the same society, or across societies that share a similar culture.

One might take this to mean that countries like the Soviet Union, Vietnam, and Cuba—countries that practice “unattractive politics”—are let off the hook. But in fact Walzer passes on such countries the harshest judgment of all: they are beyond the sphere of justice, they are outside the community of significant moral discourse; they are, in short, barbarians, unfit for the elevated moral criteria by which “we” are to be judged. This would seem to be the logical reason why Walzer’s sages are to concentrate their energies instead on the real adversary—the “hypocritical” culture that fails to live up to its moral pretensions. Such a culture deserves all that the new knowledge class can dish out, and one may be sure that Michael Walzer, for one, has done his duty by the cause.



A final matter: after God, after the moral discoveries, after the moral inventors, after the moral interpreters, who is to attend to renewing the moral stuff of our culture? Unfortunately, Walzer does not address this question. Perhaps he assumes that it is somebody else’s worry. Prophets, after all, have enough on their hands. Or perhaps he believes that morality is an inexhaustible cultural resource. He professes great respect for the “dense moral culture” of which he is part, and yet those who would nurture the habits, virtues, and institutions of that culture are dismissed as “defenders of the status quo.” Walzer seems to take for granted that the moral referents will always be in place. He is undisturbed by the charge that his social critical program is essentially parasitic on the cumulative morality of the past. And that is very disturbing indeed.

Hegel made the useful distinction between Sittlichkeit and Moralität. The former is the customary morality of a particular culture; the latter is drawn from the normative rules and reasons by which the former can be affirmed, challenged, and renewed. Moralität has to do with what Walzer calls moral discovery and invention. But in Walzer’s world of interpretation and exploitation, everything is Sittlichkeit. As he says, “There isn’t anything else.” Does he really believe this? A customary morality that is critically turned against customary morality must sooner or later consume itself.

In addition, Walzer’s entire prophetic enterprise depends upon being able to invoke, from somewhere, a higher morality by which the customary morality is judged; or so it would seem. Walzer could respond that the higher morality is the customary morality, the Moralität is the Sittlichkeit. But then his “immanent critique” would turn into a truly radical version of what has been called the immanentization of the transcendent. Perhaps, indeed, that is the move Walzer wants to make, but if so it is a terribly convoluted one. Moreover, it would seem to preclude the possibility of moral judgment in any meaningful sense of the term, since all conflicts then become no more than disputes over preferred customs. Prophecy of some kind might limp along without God, but it is hard to see how it can do without moral judgment. “There isn’t anything else” thus becomes a formula for driving out of business the very social criticism that Walzer is promoting.

An appealing prospect, some might think; but we should resist it. Social criticism undoubtedly has its uses, and it need not be as logically incoherent, morally presumptuous, and politically obtuse as Walzer makes it out to be. Of course we cannot expect Michael Walzer to agree that his argument is morally presumptuous and politically obtuse. I would not be surprised, however, if he took little umbrage at the claim that his argument is incoherent. After all, Amos was no systematic thinker, either.




1 Harvard University Press, 96 $12.50.

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