By J. David Greenstone. Princeton University Press. $24. 95. Paper, $13.95. Reviewed by Charles L. Griswold, Jr.
The American Founding was to an extraordinary extent the undertaking of classically educated and philosophically informed statesmen. They worked against the background of a long history of debates about the centrality of virtue to political life, about the problem of reconciling the individual's pursuit of self-perfection and the community's pursuit of more mundane goods, and generally about the paradoxes involved in pursuing a political ideal in a world known to be irremediably imperfect. When Madison wrote in the 49th Federalist that "a nation of philosophers is as little to be expected as the philosophical race of kings wished for by Plato," he continued a tradition of political reflection begun by Plato himself.
J. David Greenstone's remarkable The Lincoln Persuasion shows how these ancient questions and debates illuminate American liberalism from the Founding through Lincoln. As the title of this posthumously published book suggests, Lincoln created a "persuasion" (a coherent and rhetorically effective moral and political outlook) that remade or recast competing strands of American liberalism. While Greepstone's book seems to have been reasonably polished before he died, chapters on Frederick Douglass, Daniel Webster, and Lydia Maria Child were planned but not completed. Small parts of the text were provided by others, but the authorship is generally clear.
Historians often proceed on an intuitive basis, without an articulated theory of explanation. Greenstone takes the opposite tack and has written a re-interpretation of American liberalism that includes discussion of the principles of sound interpretation. One layer of the inquiry concerns what Greenstone calls his "metatheory"--that is, his basic assumptions about the nature of historical explanation, evidence, and adequacy. What are those assumptions?
Greenstone finds his answer in, of all places, the writing of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Since Greenstone denies that he is providing an interpretation of Wittgenstein, it seems pointless to pursue the complex question of Greenstone's faithfulness to Wittgenstein's philosophy. The basic idea is that the "root error" of reductionist accounts is that they assume a causal relationship between words and deeds, as though the two, in history, can always be clearly separated. But speeches and practices in fact blend together in a culture, forming "human practices or life forms" in ways that embody a set of rules. Correspondingly, what the words and rules mean is a function of the context, of how they work in a given practice. In interpreting what the Founders meant and were doing, we must be attentive to the interplay of sayings and doings, to the complex web of social engagements, actions, and responses. Greenstone's book argues at length that the liberal consensus contained...