Walzer, Michael (Laban) 1935-
WALZER, Michael (Laban) 1935-
PERSONAL: Born March 3, 1935, in New York, NY; son of Joseph P. and Sally (Hochman) Walzer; married Judith Borodovko, June 17, 1956; children: Sarah, Rebecca. Education: Brandeis University, B.A., 1956; Harvard University, Ph.D., 1961. Religion: Jewish.
ADDRESSES: Home—103 Linwood Circle, Princeton, NJ 08520-3625. Office—School of Social Science, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ 08540.
CAREER: Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, assistant professor of politics, 1962-66; Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, associate professor, 1966-68, professor of government, 1968-80; Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ, professor of social science, 1980—. Hebrew University of Jerusalem, member of board of governors, 1975—; Brandeis University, trustee, 1983-88. United Jewish Appeal, member of faculty advisory cabinet, 1977-81; American Jewish Congress, member of international affairs committee.
MEMBER: Society of Ethical and Legal Philosophy, Conference on the Study of Political Thought.
AWARDS, HONORS: Fulbright fellow at Cambridge University, 1956-57; Harbison Award, Danforth Foundation, 1971.
The Revolution of the Saints: A Study in the Origins of Radical Politics, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1965.
(Editor, with Philip Green) The Political Imagination in Literature, Free Press (New York, NY), 1968.
Obligations: Essays on Disobedience, War, and Citizenship, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1970.
Political Action: A Practical Guide to Movement Politics, Quadrangle Press (New York, NY), 1971.
Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1977, reprinted, 1992.
Radical Principles: Reflections of an Unreconstructed Democrat, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1980.
Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1983.
Exodus and Revolution, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1985.
Interpretation and Social Criticism, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1987.
The Company of Critics: Social Criticism and Political Commitment in the Twentieth Century, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1989.
What It Means to Be an American, Marsilio (New York, NY), 1992.
Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad, University of Notre Dame Press (Notre Dame, IN), 1994.
(Editor, with David Miller) Pluralism, Justice, and Equality, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1995.
(Editor) Toward a Global Civil Society, Berghahn Books (Providence, RI), 1995.
Contributor to books, including Political Theory and Political Education, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1980; Boundaries: National Autonomy and Its Limits, Rowan & Littlefield (Totowa, NJ), 1981. Contributor to philosophy and policy journals. Editor, Dissent, beginning 1976; contributing editor, New Republic, beginning 1976; member of editorial board, Philosophy and Public Affairs.
SIDELIGHTS: Michael Walzer "is a political scientist, a social scientist, a political philosopher or a social one, a gently polemical journalist, an ethical putterer," commented Richard Eder in the Los Angeles Times. Formerly a professor of government at Harvard University, Walzer later moved to the social science faculty at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. In his numerous books and essays, he tackles such vexing moral issues as the ethics of warfare and the role of the welfare state, speaking always from a socialist perspective and frequently illuminating his theories with examples from history.
In Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality, Walzer outlines a pluralistic theory of social justice that allows that all people are not created equal—some are born with intelligence, wealth, and talent, while others may be lacking in one of these attributes or even all three. While egalitarians strive for a "simple" equality that aims to keep people as equal as possible in their overall situations, Walzer proposes a "complex" equality that acknowledges individual differences and advocates a different kind of justice.
Rather than restricting the amount of money a person can make, for example, Walzer would instead limit the "spheres" where it has power. "The key to [Walzer's] solution is to worry less about the distribution of money and more about limiting the things that money can buy," explained Michael J. Sandel in the New York Times Book Review. "This is the point of talking about spheres of justice. He maintains that different goods occupy different spheres, which are properly governed by different principles—welfare to the needy, honors to the deserving, political power to the persuasive, offices to the qualified, luxuries to those able and willing to pay for them." So long as goods are restricted to their appropriate spheres—or to continue with the example of money, so long as dollars are used to buy material goods rather than political favors or power—then justice prevails.
As a means of determining which goods fit which distributive principles—whether health care, for instance, should be distributed to all as an essential part of life or only to those with the money to pay for medical services—Walzer adopts the concept of community membership. This means that instead of being born with certain inalienable rights, people are born with only those rights considered inalienable by their particular society. For Walzer, "distributive justice must begin with [community] membership," Sandel explained, "because we are all members of political communities before we are bearers of rights. Whether we have a right to a particular good depends on the role that good plays in our communal life and on its importance to us as members."
Writing in the New York Review of Books, Ronald Dworkin praised Walzer's "concrete, political analysis. . . . His historical examples are often fascinating, and this, along with his clear prose, makes his book a pleasure to read. The examples are nicely judged to illustrate the characteristic features of each of his spheres of justice." Nonetheless, Dworkin concluded that Walzer's "central argument fails. The ideal of complex equality he defines is not attainable, or even coherent, and the book contains very little that could be helpful in thinking about actual issues of justice." The problem, according to Dworkin, stems from Walzer's assumption that societies such as ours are in agreement about which goods belong to which spheres. Instead, he argued, such issues are constantly debated, analyzed and reevaluated. While acknowledging the contradictions inherent in Walzer's theory, Eder concluded that "Walzer is serious enough. His seriousness is that of Milovan Djilas, who emerged from his years as a social absolutist—and his subsequent years in prison—pale, gentle, and with a vision of utopia that he called, 'The Imperfect Society.'"
Walzer also expounds his theories on social justice in Exodus and Revolution, in which he interprets the biblical story of the Israelites' escape from captivity in Egypt as a profound political document. In support of his argument, Walzer cites St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Machiavelii, John Knox, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Karl Marx, contemporary liberation theologists and others as thinkers who have used the book of Exodus to support their positions.
Thinking about Exodus also illuminates "some of the difficulties and dilemmas contained in the promise of liberation," commented Newsweek contributor Jim Miller in a review of Exodus and Revolution, noting that the most difficult part comes when Moses descends from the mountain to find his people adoring the golden calf. Miller compares the passage in which Moses "asks for faithful volunteers to slay the idolaters" to modern political purges, and suggests that it raises questions about the right and wrong uses for the sword. Walzer himself, stated Miller, "prefers to stress the traditional Jewish image of Moses as a patient teacher" leading his people through the wilderness whose hardships offer "harsh lessons about the unavoidable frustrations, failures and disappointments that are the genuine burden of freedom." In conclusion, Miller declared: "The book captures Walzer at his formidable best: learned, humane, lively."
In Interpretation and Social Criticism, Walzer "wants to refute the claim that social criticism requires the radical detachment of critical distance," according to John Patrick Diggins in the New York Times Book Review. Diggins cited Walzer's statement that it is wrong to interpret society's standards on the basis of one's personal beliefs, which by definition cannot be extended to others. Among those figures to whom Walzer applies this censure are great philosophers and revolutionaries. "Mr. Walzer singles out Descartes's attempt to arrive at certainty solely by knowing the contents of mind," Diggins declared, adding that "Mr. Walzer reserves his strongest doubts for Sartre and Lenin, ideologues who translated social criticism into class warfare and judged their respective societies against their own, personal standards and prejudices."
Another of Walzer's arguments in Interpretation and Social Criticism is that the morality we experience on a daily basis is the route that should be followed for interpretation, a principle which he supports with examples from the ancient prophets of Israel. "The prophet does not claim to be creating a new morality but rather rediscovering a previously accepted and commonly understood one," noted Diggins. Walzer cites the prophet Amos as a perfect example of the social critic who challenges leaders, conventions, and practices of a particular society based on values shared by all. Diggins suggested that Walzer does not go far enough in explaining these shared values: "Mr. Walzer scarcely bothers to explain why equality is preferable to liberty." He also faulted Walzer for not connecting his ideas to his own society: "It is curious that he does not connect his work with American history and culture." Overall, though, Diggins praised Interpretation and Social Criticism as "learned, cogent and provocative. It avoids the pretensions of both scientific certainty and grand theory and treats social criticism as the 'educated cousin of common complaint.' It also succeeds brilliantly in making an ancient religion relevant to the contemporary political imagination."
In The Company of Critics: Social Criticism and Political Commitment in the Twentieth Century, Walzer continues to question the role of criticism in society. Reviewing the book in the Times Literary Supplement, Denis Donoghue quoted Walzer's definition of the three essential duties of social criticism: "The critic exposes the false appearances of his own society; he gives expression to his people's deepest sense of how they ought to live; and he insists that there are other forms of falseness and other, equally legitimate, hopes and aspirations." But then Donoghue challenged these guidelines: "Walzer assumes that 'all of us' have a moral sense, but he doesn't say what it is or how any of us came to have it." Donoghue also charged that The Company of Critics, which examines the work of eleven influential philosophers and critics, lacks any guiding theory or principle. "So his book is exactly the sum of its parts; a series of studies, each of them too brief to be entirely just to its occasion."
A comparison of eleven twentieth-century social critics is an interesting idea, commented Peter Halban in a New Statesman review of The Company of Critics, but it does not follow through on its potential: "This is a coffee-table tally of alienated intellectuals and Walzer has an acute, interesting mind. But while the chapters on each thinker are almost unvaryingly sharp, Walzer's general discussion of the role of the social critic works less well. This may be something to do with his style, which is chatty, elliptical and allusive. It's too easy to read one of his sheeny paragraphs with pleasure only to realise at the end that you're not sure of quite what has been said."
New York Times Book Review contributor J. Peter Euben commended The Company of Critics as "richly textured, accessible and always respectful of its readers," further commenting that it "is an example of the sort of connected criticism it commends." According to Euben, Walzer, "a pluralist, a leftist Aristotelian who regards moral principles as embodied in the conventions, customs, beliefs, rituals and institutions of a particular people," when facing the basic questions of social criticism, comes down strongly on the side of those critics he finds most engaged, most a part of the society they analyze. "That is why Mr. Walzer admires the American writer Randolph Bourne's involvement in the life he criticized; the continuities between the Italian thinker Ignazio Silone's radicalism and his life and opinions before he became radical; George Orwell's love of England, which did nothing to inhibit his opposition to those who tyrannized the working class; Albert Camus's commitment to a morality of love and justice, and Martin Buber's insistence that he must tell the story of the Jewish experience while recognizing that no single correct account of nationalist aspirations is possible." Walzer, on the other hand, continued Euben, faults American political philosopher Herbert Marcuse, French philosopher Michel Paul Foucault and Italian socialist theorist Antonio Gramsci for failing to carry out the true role of a critic: expressing the deepest sense of a people.
Euben cited some weaknesses in the book, including the lack of a clear audience for the subject, indistinct definitions of who "one's own people" really are, and a narrowly focused selection of social critics. "Mr. Walzer says he has chosen 'mainstream' critics; some feminists I know call them 'male-stream' critics," Euben quipped. He suggested that "perhaps we need a third book on criticism from him . . . one that might include chapters on the black lesbian poet Audre Lorde, the American Indian writer Vine Deloria and the Chicano theologian Andres Guerero." Euben also faulted Walzer for not sufficiently delineating his own political theories. "Mr. Walzer's ground is not so much absent as obscured, with unfortunate results." Despite these objections, Euben praised The Company of Critics: "This book proves again that Michael Walzer is a writer of rare elegance, intellectual range and moral seriousness."
Expanding on his theme of complex equality presented in Spheres of Justice, Walzer claims in Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad that ethical thought operates within two important languages: one complex moral language that operates from a sphere of locally rooted events and conditions—the thick morality or argument—and one simple moral language that applies to everyone and operates from a sphere of universal standards—the thin morality or argument. Walzer argues that moral errors occur when we examine issues from the incorrect sphere of standards, such as when we apply a thin argument to a situation that should be judged by thick morality. Such is the case when we impose our cultural values on a different culture—we are applying our local standards universally onto a culture with different local standards.
Reviews for Thick and Thin were mixed. Hailing the book's poetic style, Commonweal writer Alan Wolfe asserted: "It is a moving, eloquent, and at times inspiring meditation on the problem of obligation." A Kirkus Reviews critic described Thick and Thin as a "wellargued, if not always energetic, set of carefully wrought ideas on the state of public moral debate" but stressed that Walzer could expand his awareness of such issues as gender and race. Library Journal contributor Leon H. Brody faulted Walzer's writings for its "rambling, anecdotal quality more suitable to . . . [verbal] presentation . . . than to the more stringent requirements for publication" and added that Walzer's arguments are not detailed enough for academics, but too technical for the general reader. Wolfe, on the other hand, although he reported a lack of consistency in part of Walzer's argument, found much to commend in Thick and Thin. He summarized: "Thick and Thin should be read, not only for its substantive argument, but also for the breadth of its examples and the beauty of its prose. Michael Walzer writes on some of the most explosive issues of the day in a voice that is always calm and thoughtful. Our culture is thicker because of his presence."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Atlantic Monthly, February, 1978.
Commonweal, October 21, 1994, Alan Wolfe, review of Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad, p. 24.
Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 1994, review of Thick and Thin, p. 545.
Library Journal, May 15, 1994, Leon H. Brody, review of Thick and Thin, p. 76; June 1, 2003, Paul Kaplan, review of The Jewish Political Tradition, Volume 2: Membership.
Los Angeles Times, March 27, 1983, Richard Eder, review of Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality; February 13, 1985; April 5, 1985.
Nation, September 28, 1970; March 25, 1978.
New Statesman, February 24, 1989, Peter Halban, review of The Company of Critics: Social Criticism and Political Commitment in the Twentieth Century, p. 40.
Newsweek, January 26, 1981; April 15, 1985, Jim Miller, review of Exodus and Revolution, p. 92.
New York Review of Books, October 21, 1971; December 8, 1977; October 23, 1980; April 14, 1983, Ronald Dworkin, review of Spheres of Justice.
New York Times, February 4, 1978; August 12, 1980; January 25, 1985.
New York Times Book Review, June 9, 1974; February 5, 1978; December 28, 1980; April 24, 1983, Michael J. Sandel, review of Spheres of Justice; January 20, 1985; March 15, 1987, John Patrick Diggins, review of Interpretation and Social Criticism, p. 11; January 18, 1989, J. Peter Euben, review of The Company of Critics, p. 18.
Times Literary Supplement, July 26, 1974; October 23, 1981; March 3, 1989, Denis Donoghue, review of The Company of Critics, p. 217.
Washington Post Book World, January 8, 1978; August 31, 1980.*